Sacred Sites

A Reflection on the Toppling of Statues

July 7, 2021

I have just returned from a northern community which has been impacted by hydro development with the building of another dam in their area. People are grieving the loss of traditional lands once again as the impoundment causes the water to rise due to the sixth generating station along the Nelson River going into operation.

When I hear and see on media that people are saying someone must be charged for toppling the statues of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, it just makes me seethe with anger. I have watched Manitoba Hydro continue to devastate communities and traditional territories and waters of the Indigenous people in the north for over half a century without much being said in response by the public. Whom do we charge for the destruction of the environment, of animal habitats, for the loss of livelihoods, loss of food sources and medicines around these communities? Whom can we charge for the destruction of cultural, sacred, and traditional sites, of our gravesites and graveyards?

People are concerned about these hunks of metal, as if places that are important and sacred to people have not been destroyed over and over again. Just because our sacred areas and sites are not made of metal, it does not mean they are not important to our culture and our way of life. The hydro corporation has destroyed our home community with a hydro dam. The names of our community and our people have become nonsensical because there are no more rapids there (misipawistik – Grand Rapids) and there is no more sturgeon (namewininiwak – sturgeon people) that sustained our people for centuries. These things were important to us.

In the north, they are having epidemic rates of suicide among young people. They are losing their way of life because of the destruction of their traditional lands to hydro development. People are suffering and hurting themselves and each other. Drugs and alcohol are rampant in our communities.

There have been graveyards and forests flooded; people had to leave their sacred sites behind and were promised not one tree would be flooded and the graves would be relocated but those promises were not honoured. Today the shorelines still gather great piles of debris, driftwood that endangers the waterways and impedes the fishing industry. The Indigenous people grieve the loss of their buried loved ones whose graves are now under water.

Our sacred sites are not big hunks of metal, but we have lost many. Do not forget that. Our languages are much harder to restore than big hunks of metal and our youth still suffer because they have no language to identify as their own because so many have lost that connection to our culture.

Over many decades, we were not allowed to access our sacred sites because it was illegal to leave reserves without permission from the Indian agent, thus those sites were lost.

Our people lost their homes due to displacement, with some that were required to burn their homes as they left. Talk to the people in South Indian Lake, to the people of Chemawawin, Peguis, and the Sayisi Dene. This is only in Manitoba. Do you not think that many totem poles were stolen from the west coast tribes? There have been whole peoples wiped out from existence through the colonization process, so a hunk of metal loses its value to us when seen in the bigger picture.

People can march and signs can be put up and documentaries made, and articles written, but nobody listens nor cares. But when someone pulls down a statue, it is such a tragedy, and everyone becomes so concerned!

Ellen Cook, Misipawistik Cree Nation

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