Harold R. Johnson, who died in February, was a lawyer, award-winning author and member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. His final book, The Power of Story: On Truth, the Trickster, and Latest Fictions for a Latest Era, which recounts a gathering with a bunch of individuals representing diverse cultures and faiths regarding the role and power of storytelling in human life, is out now.
How did we get here?
Yeah, I do know, you got here by boat this afternoon.
I’m talking about how we got to this place in history. What thread did we follow?
We collectively create stories, fictions, knowing they’re fictions, knowing they represent just one version of reality, and we use these stories to create our social world. We just make shit up.
In his wonderful first book Sapiens: A Temporary History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explains that we create fictions to facilitate society. After a whole lot of hundreds of years as hunter-gatherers, humans began to experiment with agriculture only about 10,000 years ago. We had previously governed our societies in groups of not more than 100 or 150 people, through familial relationships and what [the author] calls gossip – I feel this word means something different than the vital information-sharing he’s talking about. But agricultural societies were much larger and needed a much bigger story to carry them together. So we invented religion.
This argument accounts for the history of the previous few thousand years, during which we see religion facilitate authority. God’s word was to not be questioned. The interpreters of God’s word assumed God’s authority, and so society was governed by the priest class. Until only a few centuries ago, monarchs claimed to rule as direct descendants of Adam, the primary man. They claimed that God’s grant to Adam of dominion over the world was passed all the way down to them through lineage. People needed to consider the Genesis story to be able to accept the monarch story. Each story was built upon previous stories.
We now not accept that monarchs have God’s permission to rule. That story modified. Prior to stumbling upon the Americas, European people lived in feudal systems that were rigidly hierarchical and highly authoritarian. The system wasn’t questioned because nobody imagined a unique way of being. To those people, hierarchy and authority were natural, normal and crucial. After they learned, through people like John Locke, that within the Americas, people lived without monarchs, without kings and princes and courts and judges and force, it blew their minds. They began to assume for themselves a society without kings and princes.
It was a dangerous time. A world order was starting to collapse. People began to assume anarchy, that they may live without authority. Then authority was saved by Locke. He could see that the monarchy needed to be abandoned, that the story supporting it had unwound. But his social order may very well be saved through a latest story. In his Two Treatises of Government, which throughout his life he denied writing, only becoming often called its creator after his death, Locke defends his social order by viciously attacking American Indigenous peoples. Two Treatises of Government is some of the racist things I even have ever read. Yet despite its blatant racism and complete fabrications, that work became the center of recent Western society. It forms the premise of america Structure.
There may be a story going around about how we got to be here, collectively, on this place in history. The story tells us Europeans got here to Turtle Island and colonized the unique inhabitants – that they destroyed our culture, eradicated our language – removed us from the land and dispossessed us of our relationship with the Creator. The colonization story informs most of what people must say about Indigenous peoples. It’s our rallying cry. It’s what we resist.
Let me inform you a variation of the colonization story, with some different details included.
The explanation Christopher Columbus went in search of India was because he wanted a latest trade path to perfume and spices. The trade route in existence from China and India to the Europe of his time traversed the Middle East. This was just a few hundred years after the Crusades, and the Europeans had made a variety of enemies there – enemies that taxed the caravans and drove up the costs.
Europe really isn’t a continent. It is just not separate from Asia. The division was created by Genghis Khan. Europe is the portion of the larger continent that Khan didn’t want. There was nothing there. All of the wealth was in India and China.
What we now check with as Europe had no advanced technology, no medicine, no science and no art. It had been devastated by the bubonic plague and its population was poor and dirty.
Even wealthy Europeans who could afford meat didn’t have technology to preserve it. That’s why they wanted spices. If you may have to eat old meat, spices make it palatable.
European custom on the time didn’t include bathing. They’d two baths of their life – once after they were born and again after they died. When a population stinks, perfume becomes vital. So, the foremost reason Europeans stumbled upon the Americas searching for perfume and spice is because they stank and their food was rotten and tasted bad.
I see just a few people squirming. It’s not comfortable to listen to negative stories about your history. We know the way you are feeling. Negative stories about Indigenous people have been told to us for a very long time, about how we were backward and childish and worshipped trees and rocks and needed Europeans to avoid wasting us. The history that you simply are conversant in is one which has been sanitized on your profit. It’s your background story. It’s told that approach to make you are feeling good about yourself. What I’m about to inform you goes to challenge that version. It’s okay, you possibly can hear it. You don’t must feel bad. It’s only a story.
European societal structures were rigidly hierarchical. They’d a lord in a castle on the apex and serfs at the underside. Land was held in tenure. In case you farmed this plot of land, it was because your father had farmed it, and his father had farmed it before him. They hadn’t imagined ownership yet. That was to return. Everyone in that social structure had a spot. You were born into your home and remained there throughout your life. The bottom people within the feudal system were lordless men. These were outlaws hiding within the forest, or merchants who walked between villages with packsacks stuffed with pots and pans.
When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, he found food and medicines. Take into consideration that picture of the primary Thanksgiving. We’re shown black-hatted Pilgrims and a table stacked with food – corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, turnips, tomatoes and turkey. All that food was American food, including the turkey. None of it was known in Europe, where wheat, oats and barley were primarily grown.
Within the Thanksgiving picture, the Pilgrims share their bountiful harvest with the unique inhabitants. The story it tried to inform is a perversion. It was the Aboriginal peoples who shared their food with the Pilgrims to maintain them from ravenous. The Pilgrims had come to the Americas because they didn’t have a spot in Europe. They were outcasts who needed our help.
The very act of thanksgiving was a theft of Aboriginal culture. The Lakota wopila is a thanksgiving by which an individual has a ceremony, then sponsors a feast and a giveaway. By being generous and giving gifts, the person expresses their due to the Creator. The potlatches celebrated on the West Coast is one other type of thanksgiving that involved feasting and gift-giving.
The Lakota wopila tradition, which I follow, can occur at any time of the 12 months. Every time I feel like giving thanks, I can sponsor a feast and a giveaway. To agricultural societies, like our relatives within the east, the Iroquois, and others, thanksgiving ceremonies reasonably occur within the autumn after a harvest. That major holiday within the Americas now celebrated by nearly everyone, not only farmers, is an idea borrowed from Aboriginal peoples.
When this latest healthy food that we shared with the Pilgrims was taken back to Europe, it helped to cause a rise in population. Remember, their numbers had been severely reduced by the Black Death. Latest medicines from the Americas alleviated illness and pain. Europe began to grow and prosper. Wealth from the Americas was transferred back to Europe on ships loaded with gold. Now, take into accout who had come to the Americas. Those tied to their castles couldn’t leave, and people tied by tenure to the land couldn’t leave. That left the outlaws, the outcasts and the merchants. When this newly wealthy class returned to Europe, that they had more cash than the monarchs. The kings and princes and lords had been involved in continuous wars with one another for hundreds of years, and now their treasuries were empty.
So, a number of the lowest class of individuals became the richest, and the feudal system was turned the other way up. This latest wealthy class didn’t own any land in Europe. No one did, because land was not owned. It was held in tenure. But when you may have money, you possibly can change the principles. Private ownership allowed the brand new wealthy to buy land. They didn’t buy it from the tenured tenants. They bought it from the lords, who were broke and needed money to refill their depleted treasuries. It didn’t take much. They only modified the story about tenure and property. The philosophers and political thinkers of the time, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and James Harrington, helped the method along by making up theories of personal property.
The lords kicked the tenants out and sold the land because, in the brand new property story, the lords owned the land. The tenants didn’t have anywhere to go, in order that they immigrated to the Americas.
Five hundred years after Columbus, his Europe and the feudal system he got here from has been obliterated. It has completely collapsed. Nothing of it stays.
So now now we have powerful stories about private property, and we forget that these are recent stories, the ability of story newly created, that we just made them up. These stories about private property are so powerful that a farmer in Saskatchewan was capable of get away with killing a young Indigenous man since the jury at his trial believed the defence-of-private-property story.
I live to tell the tale the land here. That cabin behind us, me and my wife built it by ourselves. I fish and trap and gather from the forest. I do know my relationship with the Earth. I take part in ceremonies that commemorate and communicate with the Creator. Aboriginal languages are still spoken here and are recovering. We’ve been through some rough times, but we all know who we’re, where we got here from, and our place and purpose on this planet.
So, who colonized whom? It seems to me that we did more to vary the European than the European did to vary us.
What I even have just told you is just one other version of the colonization story. Which do you favor: the one where Aboriginal persons are victims, where we were unfairly made to vary and adapt to the standards of the invader, or the version that claims we made them who they’re? Neither version is completely true. No story will be. You get to decide on which one you’ll adopt, which version will you tell yourself, tell your kids and tell your grandchildren.
We’ve struggled with the dominant story the colonizer has been telling us about our place here. In that story, Canada is a sovereign nation and our people are usually not. We call ourselves First Nations peoples, but at law, each domestic and international, we lack the capability of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is only a story. A person named Francisco de Vitoria made it up around 1532.
Forty years after Columbus landed, the Spanish bragged that that they had already killed greater than 12 million Aboriginal people. The remainder of Europe was disgusted with them. There was a debate occurring as as to whether or not we were humans. It was a serious query with serious consequences. If we were in truth human, then their law precluded them from taking our stuff. If we weren’t human, they were free to find and keep all our lands and belongings. Pope Paul III settled the matter in 1537 with a papal bull that declared we were humans and we had a right to maintain our stuff.
In 1532, when Vitoria gave his speeches on making war on the Indians, the query of our humanity was still open. He got here up with the concept of sovereignty just in case we were humans in any case. He defined sovereignty by taking a look at the European states in existence on the time. His definition of sovereignty is solely an outline of the European nation state of his day. He said that if a state had an outlined territory, exclusive occupation of that territory, and had a prince – then it was sovereign. If it didn’t have those attributes – it wasn’t. After all, his definition excluded Aboriginal peoples’ relationship to the land, and we were subsequently deemed to not be sovereign states. Since we weren’t sovereign, they may take our stuff, whether or not we were human.
Stories are powerful. Vitoria didn’t even write this one down. We learn about it because students in attendance at his lectures took notes. The story had tremendous power since it defined something that hadn’t been defined before. Never mind that it was completely made up – that it was pure fiction – it caught on.
In 1580, the king of Sweden realized that he claimed all of Sweden but didn’t occupy the northern portion. Occupation was suddenly vital. It was a component of this latest thing called sovereignty. So, he asked people from Finland to return to northern Sweden and occupy it on his behalf. He promised them free land and no taxes for six years.
The newcomers practised swidden agriculture. They chopped down the forest and burned the trees, thereby putting nutrients into the soil. They didn’t have enough rye – the one seed they brought with them – the primary 12 months, and had to attend until the second 12 months before they may eat their crop. They relied upon hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering to survive and have become often called the Forest Finns. They lived communally, worked together and helped one another. They made their living from the land through agriculture and keeping just a few animals, sheep and cows, and continued to fish, trap, hunt and gather from the encircling forest. They made their money by making and selling guns. The soil there incorporates a variety of iron and grass brings up the iron, which is deposited on its stems and leaves. The Forest Finns gathered the grasses that grow in marshes. They burned the grass and smelted the iron.
I do know concerning the Forest Finns because they’re my father’s ancestors. He was born in Sweden in 1898. The sovereignty story is an element of his story.
My father’s father, John Olaf Jonsson, was convinced to maneuver to Canada due to that very same sovereignty story. Canada claimed this land from coast to coast but didn’t sufficiently occupy the prairies. Without occupation and clear sovereign title, there was a risk the Americans would move in and take it for themselves. So, Canada enticed Europeans to return and settle the prairies on its behalf with guarantees of almost-free land and opportunities. My grandfather immigrated to southern Saskatchewan in 1907 and was granted a homestead on a half section of land.
The irony of this story is that I sometimes hear Aboriginal people adamantly argue that we’re sovereign – that we’re sovereign states – that we’re nations. We can’t be sovereign. We are able to never be sovereign. Sovereignty means: except Aboriginal peoples. The concept was created to exclude us.
Sovereignty is likely to be a made-up story, but it surely is a robust one. Not only is it liable for mass migrations, it’s liable for horrendous acts of domination, of murder, rape and pillaging, of dispossession and subjugation. Vitoria’s little story has caused wars. It has turn into the premise of international law. The story he made up has led to the insane belief in nationalism. It’s the story relied upon by our oppressors to validate their occupation of our territory. But despite its overwhelming acceptance by our oppressors and even by our own people, sovereignty is nothing but a made-up story. It’s an example of how powerful stories are, a reminder that we should be careful of the stories that we tell. We don’t know what impact they may need 500 years in the long run.
As an Indigenous person, I don’t rely on Vitoria’s story to know my place. I even have my very own understanding of my relationship here. My father was a Swede and my mother was Nehithaw. My Indigenous ancestors, those I discover with most strongly, lived upon this land. After they died, their bodies were placed upon scaffolds, wrapped tightly in buffalo robes. The birds ate at them, the scaffolds rotted and fell down, the worms took pieces of my ancestors down into the earth. My ancestors’ atoms are within the land. The plants reached down with their roots and took up those atoms and brought them back to the surface. Deer, rabbits and moose ate those plants, and my ancestors’ atoms are in those animals. My ancestors’ atoms are within the berries and mushrooms and medicines I gather. After I eat those berries and the meat of the animals, my ancestors’ atoms are in me. After I die, I will probably be buried, and I’ll return to the earth, the worms will eat me and spread my atoms, and the cycle will repeat itself.
I don’t say that we’re sovereign. I don’t say that the land belongs to us, because to accomplish that can be to purchase into the fiction of property. As a substitute, I say, I belong here. I belong to the land. I’m the land. I’m this place.
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