When Does Reconciliation Begin?

July 12, 2021

As the impoundment begins at another northern dam, I cannot help but express my despair and grief over the loss of more land and shoreline along those lakes and rivers, as well as all the factors involved for the hunters and fishermen and the people who live there. So many things that are affected as Keeyask dam goes into operation. Is there no end to this? Now Pallister is talking about raising hydro rates without an independent review.

We are expected to live with losses.

We spoke nēhinawēwin (Cree) when we were children. Everyone spoke the language in the community, but the school system prohibited the speaking of the Cree language anywhere near the school, so our parents asked that we older ones speak only English to our younger brothers and sisters. They did not want them to be punished with a leather strap on the palm of the hand. As a result, half of our family lost the language, and some are just now in the process of learning it. Our Indigenous languages are in jeopardy and the ones who speak them fluently are dying. Where do our people go to learn the language when it is lost? We cannot go to another country. This is our homeland where our languages live, and they live only on Turtle Island and nowhere else. When a Polish person does not speak their language, they can go to Poland to learn, or a German can go to Germany. We need to act and act quickly. Our languages are what makes us who we are.

I was raised at misipawistik, which means big rapids, and it is ironic that our community is still known by this name although there are no more rapids there. This inaccurate name has an impact on the people of our community, on the people who lived there before, when there were rapids there, and also on the youth who have no idea what life was like. Where are these rapids? The name is a daily reminder of what has been lost. There is sadness when the land you knew and lived on and lived from becomes devastated by development. There is grief and sorrow when the river which once flowed (kisiskāciwani-sīpiy – fast-flowing river) is no longer a living, free-flowing water. There is grief and sorrow when the waters you once played in and drank from are no longer safe for you. There is grief and sorrow when the playground you once played on is gone, for in the summers, we could swim in the river and in the winter, we could slide down the steep riverbanks or skate along the river. All that, gone, forever.

I grew up surrounded by pristine, stunningly beautiful, wilderness in the heart of the boreal forest, where the river with several rapids with crystal clear water flowed freely and majestically since the end of the ice age. Our forests were vibrant with literally millions of species of flora and fauna. Our home was situated one kilometer downstream from the great rapids where it thundered between the high limestone banks of the Saskatchewan River and emptied into Lake Winnipeg another 2 kilometers downstream from our home. The misipawistik was 7 kilometers of white-water torrents over which the river dropped 22 meters to drain into the big lake. These rapids are known as “kā-nikamomakahki nipiya” (The Singing Waters) and the soothing sound of their happy song lulled us to sleep at nights. In the past, our ancestors stood on the rock cliffs beside the swirling eddies at a spot called “onikahpik” (portage) to scoop sturgeon out of the rapids. We lost the rapids, the water, our traditional harvesting territories, and we lost the sturgeon, our main food source when the dam was built, among other things, and these are what we grieve to this day. The youth feel the grief of the Elders, but they do not know what it is that they grieve. It is a form of collective trauma that is so insidious they cannot put words to it nor describe it. This is intergenerational trauma that is so hard to overcome.

We would camp in the summer on the shore of the lake located up the river from us, or beside the creeks which flowed into the lake or along the big Saskatchewan River. It all depended on what we were harvesting, whether we were picking certain berries, fishing for particular type of fish, or hunting for various waterfowl or big game or digging root. The summer was all about preparing for the winter and everyone from the oldest to youngest had to take part if you were able. Play was not allowed until the end of the day and yet, we camped on the most ideal spots for swimming and the entire day would consist of dreaming about the nice cool dip at the end of the day.

Freshened up and weary, we would retire to the tent at night and lay in bed listening to the night birds; the whippoorwill and loons announcing the quietness of the night, the nighthawk would cry ‘don’t come out of the tent, there are many mosquitoes’, or the winnowing of the rainbird would forecast rain in the coming day, or the white-throated sparrow would sing that it would make tomorrow a beautiful sunny day. (‘niwāsēskwantan’) Every once in a while, as we lay in the tent half asleep, we would catch a snippet of the adults’ conversation as they sat drinking tea around the campfire.

Our youth do not know this type of life much anymore. To us, this was life, we did not complain nor question; it was just something that needed to be done in order to have a good winter. We call this the good life, mino-pimātisīwin.

Is it any wonder that our people are suffering today and doing harm to themselves and each other at such appalling rates? As Indigenous people, we were so deeply connected to the land around us, enjoying a harmonious relationship with the earth from which we got our sustenance and our life. When we see the destruction that resource extraction and development do to our territories, it feels like they are gouging away at our spirit and our being. Is it any wonder we have such high suicide rates among our people?

In living out our daily lives, we need to keep this in mind. Our land is sacred; our cāpānak should have been able to enjoy the land and waters as we were able to. The way of life that our ancestors lived before contact with European society and how we lived during my childhood was this walking in a good way which we called “mino-pimātisiwin”; for our ancestors before us, religion was not a separate entity, but a way of life, a part of day-to-day life, where there was community and sharing and helping each other, prayer and fasting, feasting rituals and ceremonies. We lived as a true community, a society that was neighborly and helped each other out. We need to find our way back, so that the self-harm and lateral violence will end.

We, as indigenous people, have tried in our way to survive this thing called colonialism, this monster that has helped to disconnect us from our land, from our history, our rights, and our identity, so corporations can benefit from it. This colonial attitude that continues to treat Indigenous people as subordinates and lesser-thans still exists today. It does not belong in the past, it did not just happen at the time when the missionaries first came and, in their quest to civilize our ancestors, nearly succeeded in cultural genocide. These supposed do-gooders with their imperialist Manifest Destiny way of thinking would look at Christianity and the spiritual life of our people as two separate entities which could not co-exist peacefully. Instead, they saw themselves as the cultured ones who came to the ignorant savages to educate and enlighten them.

We are still not that far removed from this mindset. Big industry, large corporations continue to impact the lives of our people as they appropriate the land and destroy traditional lands and waters and continue to take away our food sources. Will it ever end? This is the Truth. When does Reconciliation begin?

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