Sell a Country? Why not sell the air?

In John Milloy’s A National Tragedy, there are before and after photographs of an Aboriginal boy. In the before photo, his hair is long. He is dressed in buckskins and beads and posed against a buffalo robe. He is as he was when as he came to the Regina Indian Industrial School.

In the after photo, he is beside a potted plant looking as though he could have stepped into Eton with his short hair and neat uniform. Even his name has changed—to Thomas Moore, after a particularly rakish Irish poet popular in regency England, perhaps.

But his eyes tell a different story. They have not changed and they say more of what has been guarded than what has been lost.

The after photo does not have the effect the administrators of the Indian Residential School System had hoped for. It is not a picture of transformation from savage to civilized. It is a parody of the whole colonial project.

Parody is what comes of applying our very Western European ideas to peoples with cultures very different from ours, as the culture of Turtle Island most certainly is. Residential schools with hunters planted in rows like radishes. Houses with tissue paper walls—suburbs on muskeg. Prisons bursting with Aboriginal people being ‘rehabilitated’—sweat lodges behind bars.

“Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?” said Tecumseh to William Harrison. “Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”

“We have a different understanding,” said Red Jacket to a young missionary come to civilize the Seneca. “To you the Creator has given the book; to us He has given the land.”

Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who knows better than most that belief is the bayonet point of the colonial project) says, “When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible and they told us to close our eyes to pray.  When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

Pathos is the obverse of parody. It’s what sometimes happens when Turtle Island people throw their lot in with us. Tecumseh’s fight for a separate but equal Aboriginal nation ended ignobly, covering the cowardly retreat of Brigadier-General Henry Proctor in 1813.

It’s also parents who lose their children to foreign ways. It’s kids bundled up in bungalows with no escape except in glue and reruns of Family Guy.

According to Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization: the West and the Rest, our culture has six ‘killer apps’ (his term): competition in a free-market; a consumer-based society; rule of law based on private property rights; science’s experimental method; medicine; and a killer work ethic.

Not that these are bad. They suit us, and they serve us well. But for Turtle Island people, they are like John Moore’s neat-as-a-pin uniform—they’re a straight jacket.

You’d think we’d have figured this out by now, what with authorities from Tecumseh to Justice Murray Sinclair giving us hints. But we are a stiff-necked people, too inclined to be dazzled by our own success.

And so we continue the colonial project with a proposal right out of English common law and our third killer app. One that is almost a religion to us—our belief in the private ownership of land.

It’s a good thing Mr Harper will make his First Nation Property Ownership Act voluntary, although there’s voluntary and there’s government ‘incentives,’ as tribes in the US discovered when the Dawes Act was passed in 1887.

The Dawes Act did what the Harper Government proposes—it allowed Natives to hold reserve land in fee-simple. Its stated purpose was to hasten assimilation by breaking down tribal culture and encouraging individual initiative. It was certainly successful. Tribal lands shrank by nearly 100 million acres. By the time FDR ended the allotments in 1934, some 90,000 people had lost their lands. But they kept their poverty.

There are ways to spur economic development. Some of them have been recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, others inaugurated by First Nations themselves. Still others would see First Nations benefit from the resources on and under their traditional territories.

There are other choices. We don’t have to finish what residential schools started.

© David McLaren August 2012

A meditation on Quewich and his children …

Quewich and his children at the Qu’Appelle Industrial Residential School, SK.
(John Milloy, A National Tragedy, 1999)

Is there anything more eloquent about the depth of loss than what this old photo evokes? The children are already much further away from the father than the photographer has posed them.

And yet this photo, and others like it, were used by the churches and the government to illustrate their determination to do in Canada what Richard Henry Pratt said must be done in the US: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Richard Henry Pratt was a leading members of the “Friends of the Indian” movement. In 1879, he set up one of the first residential schools in the US at  Carlisle, Pennsylvania which put into practice his method of civilization by forced assimilation. In Canada, residential schools had been in full swing for some time.

Turtle Island parents were not stupid. They knew the world was changing and changing fast. Learning the ways of the whites seemed like a good way to ensure their children (and their race) survived. Besides, what could be worse than being separated from the land?

One survivor of the residential school system put it this way: “I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, ‘Grandma, I don’t understand you.’ She said, ‘Then who are you?'”


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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5 Responses to Sell a Country? Why not sell the air?

  1. This is a very good article, the land act it troubling but I think the reality of what is happening to the earth will catch up even quicker. The ones with good thoughts will have a chance to start again and all others will be gone. The earth has had enough and will bring great change and there will not be races of people any more, just people who will live with the Creation. So pray for the ones you love and hope this place without biodiversity can still sustain life, as the indigenous people all over the planet are warning all people who would devastate the land that a change is in the process of happening. Peace and Love to all

  2. Pingback: Mr Harper’s End Game | David McLaren

  3. Pingback: “We have a different understanding” | David McLaren

  4. Lilly says:

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