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Colonization, Decolonization and the Treaties

Colonization, Decolonization and the Treaties

“Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands, by right, by birth we Indians own these lands.”  – Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake, 1861–1913; Mohawk/English poet and performer), from “A Cry from an Indian Wife”. By definition, colonization occurs when a new group of people (settlers) migrates into a territory and then takes over

“Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands, by right, by birth we Indians own these lands.”  – Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake, 1861–1913; Mohawk/English poet and performer), from “A Cry from an Indian Wife”.

By definition, colonization occurs when a new group of people (settlers) migrates into a territory and then takes over and begins to control the Indigenous group living there. The settlers enforce their own cultural values, religions, and laws, seize or claim ownership of the land and resources. As a result, the Indigenous people become dependent on the settlers or colonizers.

In Canada, colonization occurred when explorers and new groups of people migrated to North America, took over and began to control our First Nations Peoples. Colonizers imposed their own cultural values, religions, and laws, and then created policies that did not favour the First Nations Peoples. They seized land and controlled access to resources and trade. As a result, our people became increasingly dependent on the colonizers. Today many our people and communities struggle as a result, but it is a testament to the strength of their ancestors that we are still here and are fighting to right the wrongs of the past.

Before the arrival of European explorers and traders, First Nations Peoples were organized into complex, self-governing nations throughout what is now called North America. In its early days, the relationship between European traders and Indigenous Peoples was mutually beneficial. Our people were able to help traders adjust to the new land and could share their knowledge and expertise. In return, the traders offered useful materials and goods, such as horses, guns, metal knives, and kettles to the First Nations Peoples. However, as time went by and more European settlers arrived, the relationship between the two peoples became much more challenging.

To fully understand colonization, we need to go back in history. European mapmakers saw this country as unexplored landscapes, as blank spaces. Instead of interpreting these blank spaces as areas yet to be mapped, they saw them as empty land waiting to be settled. When settlers arrived in North America, they regarded it as terra nullius, or “nobody’s land.” They simply ignored the fact that Indigenous Peoples had been living on these lands for thousands of years, with their own cultures and civilizations. For the settlers, the land was theirs to colonize. As time went on, more and more settlers took over the traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples.

When the Europeans arrived, they brought smallpox and other diseases that were previously unknown in North America. The Indigenous population had no immunity because, unlike the Europeans, they did not have centuries of exposure to these diseases. It has been estimated that as many as 90%–95% of the Indigenous population died from these introduced diseases.

These deadly epidemics happened before either the settlers or First Nations people fully understood the causes of disease. Christian missionaries told First nations people that one of the reasons for their sickness was the fact that they did not believe in the Christian God and did not attend church. First Nations people saw that the settlers were not as badly affected by disease, and many were persuaded to abandon their traditional beliefs and convert to Christianity.

The settlers then began to give their own names and descriptions to the land they had “discovered.” The land, landmarks, bodies of water and mountain ranges already had names, given to them by First Peoples. Settlers did not learn these names and made their own names for landmarks, mountains, bodies of water and regions instead. This was one of the ways in history was rewritten to excluded Indigenous Peoples contributions and presence.

Initially, the relationship was mutually beneficial for settlers and Indigenous Peoples, but this relationship did not last. Each group had their competing priorities based on fundamentally different values such as: the role and place of women; ownership and use of land; who should govern and run the society and education and child-rearing.

Colonizers used their numbers, laws, policies, and powers to gain control of Indigenous Peoples, thus leading Indigenous Peoples to be dependent on colonizers.  In their worldview, the natural environment was a resource that could be exploited for individual gain. Individuals and companies could become very wealthy by controlling the resources of this “New World.” The colonizer worldview valued competition, individualism and male superiority.

One of the tools of colonization was the creation and signing of treaties, which the settlers viewed as a process that transferred title and control of First Nations’ land to non-Indigenous people and governments. These treaties were obtained through unequal negotiations and the purpose, meaning, and long-term significance of the signed treaties were understood differently by each signatory body. The British government, and then the Canadian government (after 1867), viewed the treaties as the completion of the transfer and control of land title to the “Crown.” First Nations viewed themselves as equal partners (a Nation) when they signed the treaties, and as such they would still have access to their way of life and their traditional territories for their people, much like two governments working in parallel.

Decolonization is the active resistance to these forces of colonialism that have exploited our people and our lands.  The first step toward decolonization is to recognize the truth of all these injustices and think about ways to challenge and change existing structures. We must look at our past, where we are now, think about where we would like to be, determine how we will get there, and who will help us get there.

According to Elder Harry Bone, “To start on the road to decolonization and self-governance we need to remember our seven principles of Nationhood: Creator, land, people, language, culture, history and our governance.”  He strongly believes that we need to start with the language, as that is the core of our identity.  The Creator gave Anishinaabemowin to our people. It was one of the 4 gifts given to us: our languages to the east, to the south are our seven teachings, to the west are our history and knowledge, and to the north is our First Nations Government. These four directions tell us about our journey of life.

In order to move to sovereignty and self-governance we need to work together to changes laws and constitutions.  And if reconciliation is to ever take place, we need to start by going back to who we are, back to the language, to understand our history as we understand it, and to reclaim our teachings. We must all work towards self-determination and decolonization.


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