We had successful SCA weekend, despite basically being camped at the back of a cedar swamp. Part of the fun, of course, was being more-or-less disconnected from the outside world. I was able to leave my computer at the office and my iPad at home, and only carried my iPhone to the event… and since I was going to be there for four days, I kept it off most of the time because a two-year-old iPhone 4’s battery life is not of the best. So I checked the phone once or twice a day in order to make sure there weren’t any emergencies, but for the most part it lived in my tent. For me, that counts as seriously disconnected, so when we finally got home on the afternoon of Canada Day I had to check my Facebook account. There was a lot of stuff about how much fun people were having at various Canada Day celebrations (for my American friends, Canada Day is our Fourth of July) followed by the annual flood of the “Remember that on Canada Day we’re celebrating on stolen Native land” posts from my various left-leaning friends.
I’m going to be frank about this: I’ve always found that to be an annoying habit of the Canadian Left – declaring loudly that the line in our National anthem should be “Our Home on Native Land.” Not that I dispute that the First Nations were here first, nor can I deny that the current deplorable conditions many Natives currently live in is anything but the result of generations of government-mandated cultural (and sometimes literal) genocide, but that statement has always been one that sets my teeth on edge, and I think I’ve figured out why.
A lot (not all, but a lot) of the lefties sharing that sentiment don’t actually know much about the history of the First Nations. To be fair that’s not entirely their fault: it’s glossed-over in Canadian history books and its certainly not the government’s policy — any government’s — to emphasize (or in some cases even acknowledge) Native history. I’ve lived in Ontario all my life, and I’ve never been taught in any formal way about the history of the people who had been living in my area since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. I’ve had to educate myself on the history, and it’s absolutely fascinating.
For centuries prior to European contact, the Great Lakes basin was inhabited by several Iroquoian speaking peoples, dominated by the “Neutral” nation who controlled the profitable flint beds in and around present day Hamilton and Dundas. The Neutrals basically enforced a general peace in the Great Lakes basin via the threat of economic sanction: make too much trouble and you wouldn’t be allowed to trade for flint until you fell into line. And by and large for untold generations this system worked, more-or-less. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee lived under the Great Law of Peace; the Whyandot, the Petun, the Anishininiwag and the various other peoples living around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence travelled and traded and fought with each other in a mostly-ritualized way. Everybody raised crops, worked wood and leather, hunted and trapped, and lived a pretty decent life: the First Nations lived in a neolithic world and their lives were not poor, nor miserable, nor crude. Population levels were probably comparable to those of medieval Europe, or at least the northern parts of Medieval Europe. These weren’t savages, they were people, with customs, arts, economics, politics and yes, warfare as fascinating and subtle as any in Europe, and that was their life for a long, long time. The place I live today in was not raw wilderness, not terra incognita; it was a well-travelled and settled forest country with abundant hunting, gathering and trade. It was the seat and centre of an entire civilization that Canadians simply aren’t taught about in school.
And in the 16th century the Europeans came. They brought iron tools, iron weapons and iron firearms, and there went the Neutrals’ stabilizing control of the flint trade, because now there wasn’t a flint trade anymore. Who wants expensive, hard-to-work flint from those meddling Neutrals when the newcomers were happy to trade iron for easily-obtained beaver pelts? The Haudenosaunee were able to trade with the Dutch at the southern edge of their territory (near modern Albany, New York) the Whyandot traded with the French at the north-eastern edge of their territory (near modern Montreal, Quebec) and the Neutrals and the Petun were, to put it mildly, shit out of luck. Those tools and weapons didn’t make it as far as them, or not in large numbers, anyway… but the viruses the Europeans brought definitely did.
I’ve never been able to find a reliable estimate but it seems to be generally accepted that an appalling percentage of the Native population was dead by end of the 16th century; the Great Sickness seems to have been as bad or worse than the Black Death of 14th century Europe… and half of Europe died in the Black Death.
So you’ve got a period of economic and political upheaval, the old checks and balances no longer exist, and there’s a sudden massive demand for imported iron tools and weapons and the increasingly-scare beaver pelts with which you buy them, and on top of that more than half of everybody you’ve ever known is dead. Guess what happens next?
Look up the Beaver Wars. It’s not particularly happy reading and it is definitely not taught to Canadian schoolchildren. Long story short, the Haudenosaunee realized that their world had irrevocably changed, and they decided to take measures to make sure they came out on top. That meant they needed iron weapons, tools and guns, which meant that they needed beaver pelts to pay for them. Over several generations of warfare the Haudenosaunee drove out or enslaved entire indigenous populations to make Southwestern Ontario and the Ohio valley an enormous hunting preserve where they could get all the beaver pelts they wanted to sell to Europeans. When Jacques Cartier had explored the St. Lawrence in the 1540s, he found a thriving trade culture with substantial fortified communities. When Samuel de Champlain travelled through the same area only two generations later, he found ruins… and desperate Whyandot who enlisted his help to fight alongside them against the Haundenosaunee.
The Whyandot allied with the French against the Haudenosaunee, who immediately began raiding the colony of New France (present-day Quebec) more-or-less with impunity, so the French beefed up their military presence in their colony, which caused the English to stick their oar in and ally with the Haudenosaunee lest the French attack their colonies along the Atlantic coast, and by the time 1700 rolled around the stage was pretty much set for the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century, followed by the American War of Independence and the War of 1812, which were pretty much the final nails in the coffin for the Haudenosaunee – or any First Nation — as a major power in the Great Lakes region.
The original Natives of Ontario were largely driven out by the Haudenosaunee during the Beaver Wars, some fleeing as far as the Great Plains and becoming (or joining, the details are a bit fuzzy) the Lakota. The Haudenosaunee were resettled by the British on these “hunting preserves” after the Americans drove them out of their homelands in modern-day upstate New York following the American Revolution. After the British betrayed and abandoned the Haudenosaunee during the War of 1812 the population was so reduced and disempowered that they couldn’t do anything to hold back the tide of English settlers into what was now called Upper Canada… nor to resist in any serious way the fledgling nation of Canada’s efforts to wipe out their culture in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
That was the truly appalling part: the endgame. Powerless, scattered, their homelands being turned into British colonies and newly-settled American territory, the surviving Natives of the Great Lakes region and their descendants were then subjected to a deliberate, cynical and generations-long government policy whereby their history and culture would be finally stripped and they would be converted into, well, into nothing more unique than Europeans with darker skin. Part of that policy included destroying their language, their traditions and above all their history. That policy didn’t end until the 1960s.
And that’s what I cannot forgive: the deliberate erasure of history. I’m a medieval re-enactor, and I have a degree in Classical history: in Europe and the Mediterranean there is an unbroken line of historical knowledge from the end of the Ice Age to the present day; the study and enhancement of that knowledge is considered a worthy, even a noble pursuit. History is important, a touchstone, a foundation and a guide. That’s why I went to the trouble of learning about the history of the land where I live — and believe me it wasn’t easy to find or verify that information. In fact, I’m not even sure I’ve got all the facts straight: there is simply not a lot of information on Native history readily available in the way that the history of Europe is readily available.
Which brings me back to my complaint about the modern Left making pious statements about “stolen Native land.” “Stealing” Native land has always struck me as being rather belittling towards the First Nations — as though they had simply been brushed aside, had never been strong enough to resist, had been entirely passive as their civilization ended. The truth is the First Nations fought like hell: They fought the Europeans until the Europeans got too strong to fight, then they fought each other for the power, land and leverage to resist the Europeans, they politicked, they bargained, they made and broke alliances, they did everything they could to preserve their world… and they still lost. This land wasn’t “stolen” from them as though it was plucked from their pockets in a moment of inattention; this land was conquered. The myth of the “empty land”, where white settlers moved into the virgin wilderness might have its roots in the aftermath of those wars but the land wasn’t empty, it had been emptied.
This land, now modern Ontario, was subjected to centuries of bloody warfare and terrible plague comparable to the darkest moments of medieval Europe, and when it was over there simply wasn’t a Native culture that was capable of stopping the expansion of European settlers into the ruins left behind… especially once the British and Americans grimly decided to push ever-westward and rid themselves of the troublesome remnants of the Native inhabitants in the bargain.
That’s what irritates me about the chirpy left-wing mantra of “Our Home on Native Land”: not that it’s a misplaced sentiment, but that it’s an over-simplified one. In some ways, it’s even a dismissive one: it buys into the colonial paradigm of the dominant white settlers pushing the powerless Natives aside; the only variance from the paradigm that modern liberals think that’s a bad thing: it doesn’t challenge the paradigm itself.
How many white people living in the Great Lakes know about the Great Law of Peace laid down by Deganwidah? How many know about the Beaver Wars? How many even know which First Nation lived on the same acres where our houses and farms now stand? How many people know that modern land claims are almost never about actual ancestral lands, but rather with holding the government to their promises during the resettlement of the Natives: promises made, often coercively, and then never kept. And yet, despite generations of marginalization, current Native outrage is often less about historical injustice than about currently ongoing injustices; this is the 21st century in Canada, for chrissakes: nobody should be dying from drinking bad water.
Yes, we live on stolen Native land… but to me the greater sin is that we stole their history, too. The truth is that everybody lives on stolen land, conquered from someone at one time or another… and everybody is descended from both the conquerors and the conquered. The sheer depth of history is absolutely mind-boggling; it just goes back and back and back, far beyond any knowing or record… and very few people in this day and age seem to care. For all most Canadians know, history started when the Europeans arrived… and most of them don’t give a damn once they passed their Grade 10 History class. Whatever happened before the Europeans arrived was a footnote at best.
I live in Peterborough Ontario, where people have probably been living since shortly after the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. I’m writing this about 200 metres from a street called Chemong Road. Almost nobody locally seems to get that the reason Chemong Road goes off on a weird angle compared to the neat hippodamian plan of the rest of the city is that it’s built on top of a 3000-year-old portage running from the base of the Otonabee river rapids (now mostly submerged behind the London Street dam) along the easiest geographical path to Chemong Lake northwest of here. Chemong Lake connects via various easily navigable lakes and rivers to Lake Simcoe, which in turn connects through various waterways to Georgian Bay. We live and work and play smack dab in the middle of the ancient North American version of a superhighway… and some days I think I’m the only person who knows that.
We can give lip-service to being on Native land but unless we know the history I find it hard to believe that we can understand fully how much tragedy and blood we’re really talking about. Saying “Our Home on Native Land” comes across as one of those things that people say because that’s what right-thinking, well-meaning, left-leaning white people are supposed to say… without ever understanding the deeper undertones. It feels trite, and I hate trite… and the desperate, bloody, magnificent history we’re talking about deserves better than trite.