Well Chosen Words

Marathon Finish Line, BostonToday, as we were driving home I was speaking with Jennie about my troubles writing this post. Although writing usually comes easily to me, and I greatly enjoy the process, this post has faced a truly difficult birth, a struggle perhaps fitting the content. Part of the problem is that as a person of mixed Native and European heritage, the societal conflicts I am addressing are also personal tensions within me. Truth be told, as we spoke I was considering giving up on the project.

Just then, immediately before we reached the causeway to the island, we passed a hawk feeding at the foot of the trees, a couple of feet off the dirt road. As we passed, the hawk lifted quietly from the ground into the trees. Shortly after, as we drove up the hill into the driveway, we heard the cry of an eagle. Sure enough, two eagles were calling and circling the house. Usually they are common visitors to the house but they have apparently been rarely seen this summer. It was good to have their company, and taking their presence as a sign, I went back to work on the post. The outcome follows.

Last weekend we visited Boston and stayed in a hotel a few yards from the Blast SiteMarathon finish line and the site of the bombings. Nearby were numerous `memorials, as well as public expressions of community solidarity. Bostonians understand the bombings as an act of terror aimed at the very heart of their community. Their view is understood and validated by the vast majority of North Americans.

It is good to name things for what they are, positive or negative. How else are we to understand their nature, or their impact on us? The bombings were an act of terror. Naming them as such opens the door to healing.

North Americans of European descent have long struggled to name the removal of Native peoples from the land. Canada and the U.S. have markedly different histories via-à-vis Native people, yet both countries adapted and practiced strategies that meet the internationally agreed upon definition of genocide. There are any number of narratives used to justify the destruction of Native peoples and cultures, yet no cohesive story pointing us towards collective healing.

Boston Marathon MemorialThe administration of The Canadian Museum of Human Rights has been considering using the term “genocide” in describing such practices. Last week, the museum’s administrators decided not to use the term “genocide” to describe the European settlers’ efforts to eradicate Native people. A museum spokeswoman, quoted in an article written by Jessica Burtnick for the Winnipeg Free Press said:

“We don’t want to be seen as advocating or involving ourself in a debate that is still playing out.”

Ms. Burtnick added:

‘She also said that, as a Crown corporation, it’s important the museum’s terminology align with that of the federal government, which has not recognized Canada’s aboriginal policies as a genocide.”

“Parliament recognizes five official genocides — the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide and the atrocities in Rwanda and the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.”

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If we accept our various governments’ definitions of genocide we must agree that genocide only happens elsewhere.  If the attempted destruction of Native people cannot be defined as genocide, the veracity of assertions of harm may be challenged, and any subsequent requests for restitution dismissed. Acknowledging the truth can be expensive, yet the failure to directly and accurately address the messiness and pain of our history will ultimately cost much more.

It is worth noting that many who deny the immediacy and long-term implications of human caused global climate change also reject the idea that colonial expansion was genocidal. Nor do they accept that the most severe and direct impacts of climate change fall on the planet’s Native people. Those that do recognize these impacts simply do not seem to care.

Whether addressing the affects of climate change ,or of more conventional genocide, to “aligning” one’s terminology so as to support a version of history that favors the preferred, greatly distorted, narratives of the dominant culture is a new act of violence against those already harmed. Rather than clarifying responsibility, and creating the conditions for restitution and healing, such justifications of violence serves only to validate and vindicate those responsible for the harm. They also effectively erase the claims of competence, cultural continuity, and prior status made by those who were the focus of wrongful actions. (One need only look to the history of institutional child abuse to see a useful analog.)

Museums are not alone in facing governmental pressure to deny the genocide against Native people around the world. As Michael White noted, the European colonial institutional structures governing the provision of mental health services also face powerful cultural demands to downplay the genocidal actions of individuals and governments. As a result, the mental health system may acknowledge the trauma inflicted in the past on Native people while minimizing the effects of ongoing programs of cultural genocide (including land theft, the underfunding of treaty obligations, and the desecration of Native sacred sites), and shifting the locus of pathology from the perpetrator to the harmed.

Acts of terror and genocide may affect the families of both perpetrators and victims for generations. Thus, we should not be surprised that the words we choose really do matter. The time has come to acknowledge the planned, carefully orchestrated, destruction of Native America as “genocide.” Our societies might also affirm that a wide range of governmental and cultural practices and policies continue to further the aims of that genocide.  Perhaps then true healing will begin for all the people and lands of North America.

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