Truth and Reconciliation Commission Conference “The Meeting Place” Special Visioning Across the Pillars of White Supremacy
As part of the 2012 TRC Toronto based gathering, “The Meeting Place”, activist and educator Zainab Amadahy facilitated a workshop exploring relationships between and among Indigenous and other racialized communities in Canada.
On Friday June 1, I presented a workshop that attempted to create dialogue around relationships outside of the ‘oppressed-oppressor’ construct. I’m urban, mixed race and have never lived on the land or in a First Nations community, and so I felt that I might not be up to the task at hand. This issue also emotionally triggered me; I’d heard stories about how similar discussions had deteriorated into vicious arguments and even physical violence. I’d witnessed fiery young Indigenous activists scold recent newcomers from war torn and impoverished regions for not holding up their end of the treaties while they themselves were struggling to survive in a hostile environment that sees immigrant communities as terrorists and/or parasites. I’d heard from African-descended folks angered by the very word “settler”, questioning whether people ripped from their own Indigenous communities, brought in chains and enslaved in the colonial nation-building projects of the Americas should be described with the same word used for the perpetrators who committed these heinous acts of genocide.
What would I do if the discussion turned sour? But still, the desire to heal hearts propelled me into the room that day.
I shared many examples of how Indigenous and peoples of colour have united to resist colonialism, which can victimize us all, although, not all in the same ways. For example, there are historical accounts of the Algonquin Confederacy, the Natchez and other nations raiding colonial towns to free enslaved Africans. The Seminoles of Florida raided the plantations of neighboring states in Georgia and Alabama, freeing Africans and bringing them home to their communities. These “Black Seminoles” held off the US military for decades, eventually forcing a negotiated peace.
Thousands of runaways found homes with the Mi’kmaq, the Wapanoag and other First Nations, and then fought side by side with their adopted brothers and sisters to ward off European incursion. Indigenous communities looked to African newcomers as people who could inject new life, new blood and new ideas into nations threatened by extinction through disease and genocidal policies and those Africans who spoke the languages of the settlers and knew the battle tactics of the enemy were an asset to communities’ defense systems.
In times when Indigenous people could be enslaved for criminal convictions, murdered with impunity or dispossessed of land, the Tuscarora served as guides on the Underground Railroad. Some runaways opted to settle in the First Nations territories they passed through, where they were adopted into clans and became part of the community.
Laws written over the centuries prohibited marriage, commerce and even socializing between Black and Red peoples. Such laws were passed on the heels of slave revolts and battles where African and Indigenous people joined forces and caused severe damage to the colonial project. However, this history has been overlooked by mainstream historians who fear its power.
Other examples of how Indigenous and Chinese, Japanese or other communities befriended and supported each other are increasingly coming to light as families reclaim a history that wasn’t honoured or even recorded years ago.
Unfortunately, there are also times when our communities worked against each other’s interests.
The so-called Five Civilized Nations (Cherokee, Chicksaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole), named such by Anglo-European settlers, were slave-owning, an issue that divided communities and families back in the day and that even now is the basis of divisions. Mohawk Chief Joseph Brandt, founder of Six Nations, was a slave owner at the same time that the communities he led were involved in the Underground Railway.
The celebrated Buffalo Soldiers, comprised of African-descended and mixed race “Black Indians”, persevered valiantly through vicious anti-black racism, at the same time they were helping whites in the “Indian Wars”. This is also true of Indigenous folks and people mixed with Indigenous and European heritage who were credited with being guides, interpreters and fighters for white settlers and their militia.
In Canada we assume that a portion of the people arrive here looking for prosperity and financial success without considering the impact of their activities on Indigenous peoples or the land.But more often than not, I encounter people who have come here because their lands have been ravaged by colonialism. Their survival in their own nations has been compromised by wars or deadly economic policies and they are looking for a fresh start. Increasingly they seek to come to terms with the responsibilities of living in a settler/colonial state.
Among the reasons I share celebrated and uncomfortable history alike is the same reason that stories are told: so we can learn from them, become wiser and help each other do better; so that the next generations don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
As we uncover and share our stories, Cherokee scholar Andrea Smith cautions us against the “oppression Olympics”; when people get competitive around who is the most oppressed. They blame each other and keep score around whose community did what to whom.
Such thinking benefits colonialism. Those in power are quite content that communities spend precious time and energy in-fighting while struggling to survive. That’s no accident. There is a conscious and unconscious design to colonialism that pits communities against each other. The more we compete or fight, the less time we have to build sustainable lifeways.
Does it matter who gets the gold medal for being the most oppressed? Claiming that medal doesn’t clean up the water, air and food that we all consume. Such thinking doesn’t stop wars or the violence committed against women and children. It doesn’t get anybody jobs, housing or financial resources. It doesn’t stop police violence or keep the Children’s Aid Societies from taking our kids in disproportionate numbers.
There are ongoing efforts in many places to connect our communities in meaningful ways. The truth is that we’re all related anyway. Our histories intersect: colonization depended on genocide, enslavement, labour exploitation, land theft and violence – here and elsewhere. We connect through the environment and the food chain. We’re related through the Earth. We connect through Spirit.
The well-being of any of us is related to the well being of all of us. We need to start behaving in ways that recognize this essential truth.
Zainab Amadahy is a writer and activist of African American, Tsalagi and European heritage. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Zainab contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, ED) by co-authoring “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?”, Many of her articles can be found on rabble.ca. As an artist and activist based in Toronto, Zainab has worked with a variety of organizations to support decolonization, social justice and First Nations struggles.