Several months ago, I attended a conference called “De-colonizing the spirit” at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – OISE. Much about the two day conference was commendable, uplifting, inspiring and thought-provoking. Especially thought-provoking.
What came through loud and clear was that First Nations opinions represented there and Afro-Canadian opinions represented there had found common cause: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Yet there was a fissure between these strategic friends, imposed by the question of ownership of locale in the struggle to move beyond “the colony”, and to establish, or re-establish an indigenous or original proprietary status for a de-colonized country, a country out from under cultural, social, economic, political and military imperialism.
This fissure became evident at the end of a fiery and brilliant speech by Dr. Itwaru, who called us (all present) to account for our collusion in the theft of indigenous land (and country) through our very presence on stolen ground, even five stories high on Bloor Street. But then, mysteriously and perplexingly he seemed to backtrack when directly asked by an audience “settler” – “what should we do so as not to collude – should we leave?” since previously, in fact, a First Nations associate had candidly stated an imperative wish: “go back to wherever and just get off my land”. But, for Dr. Itwaru, apparently not – (could we actually turn our backs on the products and structures of colonialist modernity and just up and return to our former lands and ways???) His reply became noticeably unfocused – in strange contrast to the intensity of his presentation – but the question remained and still does.
To some extent that question did find an answer in what Paula Sherman suggested in her keynote address: that some “settler” heirs, understanding the injustice of the situation, had begun to think of themselves as being under Anishnawbek law, conceptually coming out from under Canadian citizenship, recognizing the true owners of the land and thereby recognizing the illegitimacy of the colonial claim with regard to conquest and/or treaty succession.
Notice that a new/old word has now been placed within the colonially contentious landscape: “settler” – we move from being immigrants to being settlers – but, as settlers, do we ever, within Anishnawbek law (by adoption, by incorporation) attain the status of indigenous “owners” (in a profoundly collegial sense) in the land ourselves – or do we remain a foreign and alien community – or, perhaps (a good case scenario?), become a different but articulated group within the entire panoply of – well, of what, exactly??? Perhaps we become one of Black Elk’s many hoops in an open landscape without borders – without “ownership”.
Because this was “decolonizing the spirit” – there was a lot of focus on “spirit” – on asking the ancestors of First Nations and of the ancestors of Afro-Canadians for their Blessings. And since, indeed, “Africa is mother to us all”, everyone could participate in this ancestral grounding. Yet, I must confess, I found it hard – I felt I was neither “First Nations”/indigenous (although I do have a Cherokee/Tsalagi ancestor) nor had a sense of African immediacy. What calls to me is none of these, nor “enlightenment Europe” nor “Christian Europe” – but my own ancestral strands, deeply embedded but widely scattered across “the land between the oceans”, of Pagan Europe. Indeed Paula Sherman insisted that it was my own ancestors to whom I ought to look and with whom I ought to connect, over there, even though at least one strand of my family has been in the Americas since 1634 – (and one strand is, in fact, Native American Tsalagi/Cherokee). Do I belong here – or do I belong there (where I have actually never been)? It’s clear that this question of “belonging” was the cri du coeur of the conference, for everyone who presented and who witnessed, not only for me alone. It was what united us in the question and separated us in the answer.
Equally clear, there was much hurt and much anger. Longing for belonging, the hurts of history and the anger of victimization found some relief in intellectual and political investment in both Afro-centric identity and in First Nations identity, respectively. Only a few brave souls bucked the current as it ran. One such was a young man who talked about his Farsi/Persian heritage, transposed to India, blended in Evangelical Christian, Muslim and Hindu musical trops to form a distinct devotional practice: he eschewed the pure and reveled in the cosmopolitan, his “heritage” not a strand but a tapestry woven in location to be sure but drawing threads from many sources – and that also was “thought-provoking”. He called his work a type of “spiritual practice” but it could also be described as an immanential devotion. Good on him for his courage, talent and wit – and good on the conference organizers for giving him a platform too. So where does my quest for indigenaity go from here – not sure. Still pondering. Need to go out walking to see if the ground beneath my feet can give me answers that conferences can’t.