There is no land-acknowledgement I know how to make that will generate sincere justice.
I grew up in Elora, Ontario. I never tell people that without suffixing: it’s a wonderful place to grow up. The Grand and Irvine rivers join in a publically-accessible, tree-lined limestone gorge up to 22 meters deep. It’s steeped in carefully celebrated history and, when you’re a lonely hiking homeschooler, deeply swarming in lore. The rivers meet where, every local knows, a young Native woman jumped to her doom after learning her darling white boy was killed fighting against the American frontier in 1812. This is more of a Victorian melodrama than recorded history. Sometime in the two centuries between then and now, her picturesque deathbed served the small industrializing settlement as a garbage dump.
In my undergrad at the University of Waterloo, close to the banks of the Grand, I was privileged to take a dramaturgy course in tandem with a divisive land-claim dispute further downstream in Caledonia Ontario. My class underwent research and production dramaturgy for the development of a new play about the land-claim. We visited the disputed territory, wedged like a doorstop between the Oshwekan Mohawk Reserve and the developed town of Caledonia. We spoke with the Elders protecting the land, a postage-stamp of strangely flattened farm fields paved and scraped with cul-de-sacs and unlit streetlamps that frame the empty promise of large-scale residential development, now dried by wind. They were generous to teach us all kinds of things. About the land, the river, the Haldimand tract, and even simply their cultures and individual identities.
The event and the education we received are both richer than can be stated here. I think the scholarly writing on our exploration and performance is still forthcoming. The Haldimand Tract runs 6 miles (roughly 10 kilometers) on either side of the Grand River. It was assigned to the Six Nations by the Crown in October 1784 as thanks for participating in the American War of Independence, a recompense for territory lost south of the Canadian border. It is Native Land and there is a paper trail to prove legal ownership.
The creaky brick house I grew up in was built by the first manufacturer of the disk plow. His factory, now romantic ruins, ran on a hydroelectric dam which stands on the Grand River a few hundred meters from my childhood front yard. My siblings and I spent many hours roleplaying stories and catching crayfish in the dam’s century-old chute. Only a few minutes downstream begins the gorge and a little further down begins the provincial park where you can enjoy the majestic beauty of the Grand River for $48 a campsite. Of course, the locals know their way into the park and we took to inheriting the river by our skinned knees, fights, smells, sexual awakenings, and everything in between. It felt entirely ours.
The play that my dramaturgy class eventually rehearsed and performed was written by Gill Garrett, using multiple sources. I shared a role that represented the woman living across the road from the land claim dispute. Her home was surrounded by old anger sparked, a flaming road-block, militarized police officers, white supremacists bussed in from other cities, young Native men tearing through her property on ATVs … she couldn’t exit her driveway without entering what was sometimes made to look like a war zone (though it was quite welcoming when we saw it). Under the din of an angry family-member imploring her to choose a certain side in the dispute, she defiantly baked a pie. She walked her fresh baking down the driveway to the incendiary street. A gift to the First Nation Land Defenders. Neighbors make neighbors pies. Performing her tiny story every night I cried.
What moved me playing this part was, perhaps, a culmination of the whole complex event and a selfish route to understanding it. But I was also, of course, so in love with her ability to preserve a sense of personhood with a simple gesture of companionship. It was lost on me at the time that her gesture came in the form of a very old, endlessly celebrated, particular pastry so commonly attributed to settler culture. The irony now strikes as both ugly and beautiful.
I’ve often heard of First Nations’ relationship to the land as religious and sacramental. A rhetoric that imperfectly stumbles through settler’s language to explain something that cannot be totally understood.
Two summers into parenthood, my wife and I went on a little road trip. Sitting behind the wheel I trusted her navigation, having no idea where the road was winding us. I don’t drive much and had never been through this part of Ontario before so I sincerely didn’t know where we were. But when we crossed the Grand River I could feel it in my gut. It was as if all the water in my blood pressed against my skin to reach through the car and return to the river. This was my river. Wasn’t it?
My physiological recognition of and longing for the river forced new questions we should all be asking: how do those feel who have been torn from it? Or torn from another territory, given this one, and watched it become excavated and developed in the proceeding generations? If this river is so much of who I am, who are they?
The Oshwekan Mohawk Reserve we visited when learning about the Caledonia land-claim dispute spans a maximum of 6 miles, 10 kilometers, from only one side of the Grand River. It is hardly any bigger stretching north to south along the one bank. The Mohawk Nation there aren’t originally native to Ontario. They were displaced out of New York State after the War of Independence. Some were refugeed to the Canadian border at the time but, why the Crown chose the Grand River, exactly, is beyond me. Before then the river was Iroquois territory. And before then it was Attawandaron.
I don’t understand the history as well as I’d like to but I think it’s worth noting that the First Nations’ effort supporting the British in the American war was led by a Mohawk, Joseph Brant, who had already devoted a great deal of his life to fighting British and colonial claims to Native land in New York State.
Today the Six Nations of the Grand River are the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora. I think it is worth noting that, as I understand it, some of these communities once supported their local ecology by only living in one place for about 60 years at a time. They moved their cities and villages once or twice a generation to allow for nature and woodland to recolonize the space they took up. And so, the settler notion of parceling land for permanent ownership was --still is-- absurd.
Some of the Haldimand tract was purchased from the displaced Joseph Brant by settlers, taking ownership and founding what has become places like the City of Kitchener. But, of course, it was the purchaser’s assumption that Brant could speak for all six of these nations.
To me, our responsibility to this land exceeds it’s acknowledgement. And the historic narrative of it’s “original caretakers” is too complex for a soundbite to contain. I think part of any land acknowledgement, as we’ve been giving them, should contain the knowledge that settlers will never meet the First Nations where we left them. Despite my blood’s tug to the river, we will never fully understand.
The Dish With One Spoon Treaty, already used elsewhere, was a late addition to most of the Haldimand tract in 1792. Taking this already ceded territory into a treaty which recognizes both First Nations and Settlers as caretakers was excused by an unapparent mapping error when offering the Haldimand Tract to Brant and the Six Nations. An act of colonialism. The Dish With One Spoon Treaty represents a partnership wherein all parties who share a land respectfully conserve it for each other under self-governance. That is to say, the local Six Nations and the settlers are supposed to govern themselves beside each other but independently. With only one spoon between us--we are supposed to share. Notwithstanding the late placement of the treaty onto the Haldimand Tract by settlers, we can acknowledge that the existence of the treaty itself is an act of generosity from the original caretakers. As for the conservation part of the treaty, I’m not convinced we’re doing our part.
As my whole body can tell you, driving across the Grand River on a little road trip, the importance of this tract and the treatise surrounding it, cannot be overstated.
A middle-aged white woman came to see our play. She claimed to be practicing Native Spirituality but, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem to arrive with any of the First Nations people in our audience. When I told her that my Catholic guilt caused me great struggles as the experience taught me more horrible truths about our relationship to the First Nations she became angry. She wanted me, as a Catholic, to deliver the children back home from their residential schools. Give the generations of deceased back to their own communities. How could anyone do that? How can anyone repair that damage? I wept in a stranger’s arms. She did not.
Is that what justice looks like? When we make our land acknowledgements before the plays we produce, what exactly are we offering and accomplishing? We know that we lack the language to fathom what the land actually means. Besides, what does “acknowledgement” progress? What do my tears? Her anger? The children are still gone. The river is developed.
The two-row wampum pictured above, in part, represents the Dish With One Spoon Treaty. It is a picture of a river (the Grand River, sometimes perhaps). The two purple lines represent Natives and Settlers travelling separately on that river. The first white row represents peace. The middle row represents friendship. The last white row represents eternity. Among these, the two travelers never intersect. We do not disturb each other. We do not understand each other. We share the same river.
I co-produced a few evenings of original theatre in Kitchener last winter. The inevitable discussion about our land acknowledgement evolved into a long conversation between myself and one of my collaborators. We asked ourselves these questions. It means one thing if our land acknowledgement awards us with a feeling of absolution from settler guilt. But it is an entirely other thing if our acknowledgement complicitly gives that feeling to our audience. Because it comes from us, that too is a form of colonization.
Making white noise out of the land acknowledgement might be better hoped for than the neoliberalism of supposing absolution from it.
What do we owe the people who’s languages have been taken away? Who have been stripped from their lands and rivers for multiple generations? Whose children have died in residential schools? The very least we can fathom, after colonial insistence on it here, is a return to the two-row wampum and the Dish with One Spoon. The tiny size of the Oshwekan Reserve at Caledonia, pressed into a small puzzle-piece of the Haldimand Tract, tells us that we have not been honoring these treatises and relationships.
For me, as a settler, the only tool I have to appreciate how land is tied to identity is through my own. Which is why I rattle-on about it above. In these ways, however, it is also not my own. This is a problem we have forced ourselves into having. And we surely will for generations.
Unless losing our own homes and our own place in these treatises, unless becoming uprooted like the Mohawk Nation was, the only way to honour them, argues my collaborator around last winter's show, is to have two equally powerful figureheads leading our country in collaboration and opposition: a Prime Minister and a Native Leader. Side by side, equal in power, equal in representation. Imperfect but progressive. It represents the promises we made when we forced the Dish with One Spoon onto the already ceded Haldimand Tract. It represents collaborative conservation and self-governance from sea to sea. And the inconvenience it suggests pales in comparison to the history that demands it. Until then, our land acknowledgements are nothing. Until then, and even after, we cannot be free of our colonialism.
UPDATE: This was written and posted before the Final Report on our National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Much more important reading than my blog. You can access it HERE. Please do.