Dylan Robinson – embracing resentment and reconciliation

Dylan Robinson is a Stö:lō scholar and artist based in the First Nations studies program at the University of British Columbia, on unceded Coast Salish territories. His research focuses on Indigenous public arts and performance interventions in Canada, the US, and Australia. 

Witnessing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Attending Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools over the past three years there have been many times I have felt moved by the strength and resilience of residential school survivors, experienced a heightened sense of community, and felt empathy for survivors and their families. As a Stó:lõ person, I have often witnessed testimony and listened to the “contributions” by government and church officials presented at the TRC events with the sedimented weight of knowing intergenerational loss. Because of this, I have sometimes witnessed, and listened, with resentment. I have experienced resentment at hearing such remarkably consistent experiences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I have resented the TRC forum itself, where survivors are expected to limit their comments to a contained aspect of colonialism: residential school history. I have resented the “contributions” where institutional officials from the Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Catholic Church have abdicated their responsibility. I have resented offers of Settler-ally friendship, that we are all “part of the same great embrace,” and that Canada would be a better place if every Settler had “a First Nations friend.” (Victoria TRC event, “It Matters to Me” session). As Dene scholar Glen Coulthard notes “…resentment is often cast as the inability to come to grips with history. Resentment indicates an inability to let go….” And yet, “Embracing one’s resentment,” as Coulthard contests,

…is not only an entirely defendable position, but actually a sign of our critical consciousness, of our sense of justice and injustice, and of our awareness of, and unwillingness to reconcile ourselves with the structural and symbolic violence that is still very much a part of our lives. Of course we should resent colonialism, as well as those people and institutions who are willfully complicit in its ongoing reproduction.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk5XNjI2Yao, 33:45)

As part of the TRC proceedings, there is a program of artistic presentations by local performers and musicians, both Aboriginal and Settler Canadian. While the majority of artistic and musical contributions taking place at the TRC have not induced such resentment in me as an audience member, one in particular seared me with its offer of friendship and reconciliation.

The first day of the TRC Victoria regional event in April 2012 concluded with a series of performances reflecting diverse cultural traditions of First Nations across Vancouver Island. A local Victoria choir consisting of Settler Canadian singers also performed – the Gettin’ Higher Choir. They concluded their portion of the evening with a performance of Inuit singer Susan Aglukark’s O Siem, the chorus of which is familiar to many Canadians from its regular presence on easy listening stations across Canada since it rose to #1 in the Canadian adult contemporary charts in 1995:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zZHlA4hPGQ

The lyrics of the chorus, just in case you did not catch them are:

“O Siem, we are all family

O Siem, we’re all the same”

After eight hours of listening to testimony from survivors and intergenerational survivors, I listened to the Gettin’ Higher Choir’s contribution toward reconciliation. The concert was intended to lift peoples’ spirits after hours of intense testimony from residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors, and it may have done so for some. Yet to sing this song after a full day of telling and witnessing residential schools’ overwhelming history of inhumanity felt more than inappropriate. The irony in the choir’s offering, sung with the best of intentions is that the history of abuse and cultural oppression in residential schools was anything but “the same” history as that of Settler Canadians. Canadians were not taken from their parents and beaten when they spoke English, were not forced to do manual labor in order to keep their schools running, were not called “dirty Canadian.” Nor is the present reality of Aboriginal communities – the lack of adequate housing, clean drinking water, and educational opportunities – “the same” as for Settler Canadians based in rural, urban areas elsewhere in Canada. Canadians, for the most part, do not feel shame at being Canadian, or learn to hide their cultural history from their children.

One might argue that hearing the choir’s expression of these lyrics as anything other than an expression of our common humanity is to elide their best intentions. But to look at the faces of the Gettin’ Higher Choir, moreover, was also to see belief in their message. A belief in reconciliation’s friendship, in reconciliation’s great embrace. The choir’s performance, both in message and in its non-representational atmosphere of warmth and enthusiasm, demonstrated a belief that to sing such a message was perhaps enough to make it better, a belief as performance studies scholar Jill Dolan puts it “…that beyond this ‘now’ of material oppression and unequal power relations lives a future that might be different, one whose potential we can feel as we’re seared by the promise of a present that gestures toward a better later.” (Dolan, 7) But best intentions are nowhere near enough. What is needed from Settler Canadians now is dialogue, commitment to future actions, or just simply showing up at TRC gatherings to learn about their country’s less than glorious history and role in cultural genocide – to “kill the Indian in the child.”

Speaking to this lack of public engagement during a TRC community hearing in Nova Scotia, Miqmac survivor Isabelle Knockwood has noted the inequity of what is asked of from survivors and what has been asked of from the non-Aboriginal public. As Knockwood sees it, although those who give expressions of reconciliation often offer apology for their institutions’ roles in the residential schools, such statements do not necessarily evidence the complex emotions of the past in a similar way to those survivors re-telling their experiences. Importantly, in her community hearing testimony Knockwood confronted the difference in emotional labour of witnesses and survivors:

 

 “The church members haven’t told us about their experiences. The pedophiles, the clergy of pedophiles haven’t told us their experiences. The abusers, the ones that punished us so severely, they didn’t tell us how they feel when they were punishing us. The government is not telling us how they felt when they put us on Indian reservations and how happy they were to build Indian residential schools in order to kill the Indian in the child. When are they going to tell us how that felt like?”

(http://www.livestream.com/trc_cvr/video?clipId=pla_eadc323b-6d17-4086-8b20-633cd72f8bb0 , Thu Oct 27 2011 10:03:47 AM, 30:01 – 31:15)

Years after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school survivors, a significant proportion of the non-Native Canadian public remains ignorant that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is ongoing and is meant to include them as witnesses. Through such ignorance Settler Canadians continue to abrogate their responsibility to understand this history as their own. After all, as the fallacious argument would have it, since non-Aboriginal Canadians aren’t themselves the perpetrators of past injustices of the state, why should they make any effort to engage in learning about this history, or to support social change in communities affected by intergenerational trauma. Many of Canada’s non-Native Settler public, like those named by Isabelle Knockwood, remain indifferent toward acknowledging the history of colonization upon which their contemporary privilege rests.

Many First Nations participants who attend the TRC are from my own generation – a generation who did not themselves attend residential schools, but whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did. Many from this generation have adopted the term “intergenerational survivor” to acknowledge continuing abuse its impact within our families and communities, and as a way to describe the effects the schools had on the loss of cultural traditions and languages. Although I do not use this term for myself, I feel the intergenerational impacts of residential schools keenly. The time has come, however, to re-direct the term “intergenerational” toward Settler publics. There is a large degree to which Settler attendees at TRC events see their participation in the process as limited to a witnessing of survivors’ testimony alone, to making symbolic gestures, or to offering their friendship. Yet these first steps, however important they may be, limit the extent of Settler responsibility necessary in redress. Moreover, such contributions avoid the crucial step of claiming what I call Settler Canadians’ intergenerational responsibility to lend resources (both individual and institutional) to future change.

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The Warriors Ode

Rewind.

Ok, so after the visit to The British Museum, my Tiddas and I were extremely overwhelmed after coming into contact with artifacts forcibly ‘acquired’ from an unrecorded war.

The frontier wars as they are known.

When captain cook had first attempted to land and invade our lands in 1770, he was met by two warriors. These warriors responded to the european landing party, treating their attempted landing as a declaration of war with the throwing of their spears.

The english fired and ‘wounded’ one of the warriors. A bark shield was ‘dropped’ and picked up and taken on board the endeavour. This was recorded in cook’s journals but was also a yarn that has been told and retold and told again…….

Fast Forward.

242 years later, in the land where the invasion began we are standing, looking at the bark shield behind glass. A displayed relic of the untold story of Australia’s history exhibited and held as a part of the ‘colonial story’ elicited many different emotional responses. We watched as a group of schoolboys pushed past, looking for items on their activity sheets, they stopped and were pointing and agreeing that it was what they were looking for. This relic of war was now apart of a ‘scavenger hunt’ probably used to entertain the many school groups that would pass through the halls of the museum, to make education seem fun. None of this was fun for us.

I was familiar with the story as it is the story that we relay whenever the term ‘peaceful settlement’ is heard. We know this story because of what it represents and because the young people today who are upholding the legacy and fight for land rights whom use it as the first record of dissent from foreigners invading and founding the country now known as Australia during many heated debates and conversations with non Aboriginal people who like to romanticise about the frontier wars. Who tell US to get over it.

How can we get over it when we are still being oppressed by the ancestors of the invaders? How can we get over the white psychosis being perpetrated and materializing in the deplorable living conditions experienced back home?

I walked out of there feeling like I had a hole in my head.

Literally. It felt like air was hitting a nerve it’s not supposed to, the only way I could describe it is feeling like you just chipped a tooth. It is a weird feeling and I could not help but think about the many warriors bones and heads that have also been ‘aquired’ and stored away. What warrior would drop or lay down his spear and shield? I thought about this quite a bit as our discussions continued on through lunch, and then it hit me.

Only a dead warrior would lay down their shield.

I started to write…….

The Warriors ode

The catalogue
Grows jealous
Of the visual splendour
That in theory it should have……
As art.
As a part

Of the most efficient design
Known to eye
Creations of past nations
Go against the grain of
Colonisation
But hey,
What good is coming from
Even having this conversation?

6000 to 1

A sublime
Character shadowed by his own short comings
A figure cascading
From the sky
To arrive
At this sweet destination
Where life meets death
Better yet
Bitter sweet
Out of date fruit to eat
Polluted buffer
Weighted down
One king had his crown
Stolen
Pay us for what you owe us

Light
Shines through a crack
From inside a box
Not really going anywhere
But staying no where
How did you,
Patriot of a war unrecorded
Get here?
Lorna Munro.

Nàngami

Dreams are said to be the voice of the unconscious.

The ‘Dreaming’ for our non Aboriginal readers and followers is a term used to describe the interconnectedness and complexities of Aboriginal spirituality, mythology and creation.

There is no distinguishment from creation to today.

The term is an English word attached with foreign connotations of what a dream is.

Dreams are studied extensively as an attempt to understand the human brain and psyche.

What do our dreams tell us that words can not?

An analogy for dreams can be seen as files that we tap into each night when we close our eyes to sleep, ultimately downloading knowledge from our ancestors.

What are we, the embodiment of the past, present and future downloading when we dream?

Language is important to any cultural identity and heavily influences the social interactions that people may or may not have. In Australia, the diverse Languages and dialects of the land are disappearing at a rate never before seen in the history of human evolution.

The language of the land embodies the law of the land.

In 1788 Lt William Dawes sailed to Australia with Captain Phillip (soon to be first Governor) and he took an interest in many things “native”. He was especially fond of the Sydney languages and had many interactions with a young woman from the newfound Sydney town.

He kept a two notebooks recording many conversations.

The notebooks are a key resource for the revitalisation of the Dharug language and are more than words on paper. They closely detail a relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang, a young Cadigal woman, by the documentation of their yarns which range from Patyegarang’s sleep deprivation to statements of resistance.

On Wednesday, the Tidda’s had the opportunity to hold Lt William Dawes notebooks and read from the same text the young Patygareng once held and may have even written in herself.

We met up with archivist Susannah Rayner and director, David Nathan from the Endangered Languages faculty who showed us their small collection of materials that delve into first contact stories including Dawes Notebooks . Click here to view Dawes Notebooks online

Thanks to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, the Tiddas were given the time to hold the notes in our hands, to flick the pages, see the words, roll them out on our tongues and to reimagine the yarns between the first peoples and the invader, recorded more than 220 years ago.

After the overwhelming experience of the day before with “that shield” at the British Museum we were unsure of how we would react to the materials especially as they document the experiences of some of the Tidda’s ancestors and the mere fact that what happened in these places created a ripple effect of colonial oppression and cultural genocide in all of our communities.

The Tiddas discovered many things documented throughout Dawes Notebooks, more importantly they found many similarities between themselves and the young Patyegarang.

An excerpt from the notebooks display a level of defiance that is very much still evident today.

William Dawes had asked Patyegarang about a resistance that was forming, some say led by the first patriot to die defending his homelands, Pemulwuy. He had told her that a whiteman had been wounded some days ago in coming from Kadi (Sydney Cove) to Warang (the Rocks, Sydney) and asked her why the black men did it.

Patyegarang: Gūlara – (Because they are) angry.

Dawes: Minyan gūlara eóra? Why are the black men angry?

Patyegarang: Impám yaluri white man Because the white men are settled here.

Nàngami is to dream. This term is documented in Dawes notebook and the Tiddas wonder as to what dreams the Dharug mob were having during the initial stages of first contact?

Did that dream turn into a nightmare?

Milbah.

Ba-rang-a-roo.

War-rai-were Biel-bool.

Go-roo-ber-ra.

Bur-ro-wun.

Gome-bee-re.

Yello-mundy.

Djimba.

Its not too often that these names are spoken nor written. In fact these names belong to the many men and woman of Warran Circular Quay. Their names and stories too easily forgotten.

What messages can be decoded from our own Nàngami?
What are these voices saying?

Byalawayagu speak soon,

Gabi, Ali, Lorna & Lou

Also, the deadly David Nathan from the School of Oriental and African Studies has also written a blog about our experience with the materials. See blog here Thanks Dave!

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Origins: First Nations Festival Opening @ the Bargehouse, London. 22/10/13

By Tiddas Take Back.

Hey you mob! Just giving you a sneak peak of some of the footage from our incredible night at the Bargehouse, London for the Opening of the Origins: First Nations Festival. More comin’ soon!

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Gone gatherin’

By Ali Murphy-Oates.

I just woke up to read the news that Canberra, our nation’s capital state, has passed laws allowing same sex couples to marry. Maybe it’s the four hours sleep I’ve had (curse you jet lag!) but I’m sitting on the edge of the bed absolutely overwhelmed with emotion. What a sook! So before I start my post, I just want to give a little shout out to all the babes in Oz who might be planning to migrate to our nations’s dullest city to make it a little more colourful with their love. Shine on.

Last week was a long, bizarre week. It started with packing the entire contents of my home up on Monday into 22 garbage bags in preparation for a pest terminator. It went downhill when I lost hours and hours worth of work in a late night computer meltdown on Wednesday night, crying pathetically at my desk. It completely bottomed out when I thought I had lost my passport and spent most of Thursday picking through the aforementioned garbage bags twice over in search of it, calling the passport office to book two separate emergency passport replacement appointments, and enlisting most if my workmates via teary phone call to search my desk for me. Four hours gone and all dignity lost, I found it. It was in a folder next to the bed. And finally the week ended Saturday morning with me posing for a full body nude portrait (hi mum) for the wonderful artist Deborah Kelly and her project In All Our Glory for the 19th Biennale of Sydney. Just the thing to calm you down before a long haul international flight!

And then then I went to the airport and went to England with these ladies. And the new week got stepped up to super-awesome-level-1000.
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If you haven’t taken a moment to read the ‘about’ section of this website, I recommend you do. Right now. G’on den. Git!

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Global Songlines

By Merindah Donnelly.

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48 minutes till London…

I slept pretty much the whole way, dreaming of mum and dad and the veggie garden back home. And because this trip is so epic, the loose plan of building up some reserve battery power by sleeping as much as possible seemed appealing. This last week leading up to departure has been a race against time.

Time. A concept that we’ve discussed reclaiming as part of our collective’s mandate.

Travelling reminds me of certain things I don’t always have time or space to think about. I have always wanted to understand the world from Indigenous perspectives, my ancestry traces back to Indigenous peoples globally.

I’m a fiercely proud Aboriginal woman from central and northwest NSW, my ancestors fought the colonisers.

I’m also ‘a wee Celtic lass’! My pa’s family is from Cromarty, in Scotland. His ancestor’s fought the British. My dad’s great great great grandfather was from Armagh, in Ireland, and his ancestors also fought the British.

It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, First Peoples purpose is always similar – protect the land, be one with the land and ensure the spirit of the land and our own spirit stays here for many generations to come.

Indigenous peoples all over the world have been oppressed and subjugated by dominant invasive cultures. As such, our version of history is not taught or as readily available, and certainly not apparent in everyday things we take for granted such as maps. There is nothing like travelling to bring these issues to light.

Gabi has just pointed out to me we are flying over the English Channel (which I’m totes gunna swim one day). Twenty minutes til we land. Lorna, Ali and Lou are all on British soil- so it’s just Gabi and me now.

Can’t wait to get off this plane, serz.

I’m on edge about travelling to London. I know I’ve probably got a preconceived notion of what that will be, but right now- the Brits are the living embodiment of colonisation. Their cultural arrogance that led to the dehumanization of my people is still affecting my family today.

I’m looking forward to travelling to Ireland and Scotland. I can’t wait to see what I dream about, and I can’t wait to take my shoes off and stick my feet in the earth- while I still can.