• Thomas King is one of Canada’s premier Native public intellectuals. For the past 50 years, he has worked as an activist for Native causes. He has also taught Native literature and history at universities in the US and Canada. He is the bestselling author of five novels, including Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, two collections of short stories and the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories. He most recently published The Inconvenient Indian. Look for more non-fiction writing by Thomas King in subsequent issues of Common Ground.
Great question. The problem is it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.
But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask. One that will help us to understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present. What do Whites want? No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as written has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.
The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not ask to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.
What do Whites want? The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along. Land.
Whites want land.
Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that everything that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves. All that’s true. From a White point of view, at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the twenty-first century governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.
The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’etre for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.
At the Lake Mohonk conference in October of 1886, one of the participants, Charles Cornelius Coffin Painter, who served as a lobbyist for the Indian Rights Association, pointed out the obvious, that the treaties made with Native people had been little more than expediencies. In his talk, Painter quoted General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had said that treaties “were never made to be kept, but to serve a present purpose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible compensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.”
This is the same General Sherman who philosophized that “The more Indians we kill this year, the fewer we will need to kill the next.” Painter didn’t necessarily agree with Sherman, but he understood that the overall goal of removals, allotments, treaties, reservations and reserves, terminations and relocations, was not simply to limit and control the movement of Native peoples, but more importantly to relieve them of their land base.
Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land. Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and the songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home.
For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it… The Alberta Tar Sands is an excellent example of a non-Native understanding of land. It is, without question, the dirtiest, most environmentally insane energy-extraction project in North America, probably in the world, but the companies that are destroying landscapes and watersheds in Alberta continue merrily along, tearing up the earth because there are billions to be made out of such corporate devastation. The public has been noticeably quiet about the matter, and neither the politicians in Alberta nor the folks in Ottawa have been willing to step in and say, “Enough,” because, in North American society, when it comes to money, there is no such thing as enough.
We all know the facts and figures. Carbon emissions from the production of one barrel of tar sands oil are eight times higher than the emissions from a conventional barrel. The production of each barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of fresh water, 90 percent of which never makes it back into the watershed. The waste water winds up in a series of enormous tailing ponds that cover some 50 square kilometres and is so poisonous that it kills on contact.
Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, oil corporations, with the aid and abetment of government, are expanding their operations, breaking new ground, as it were, and building thousands of miles of pipeline – the Keystone Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Transmountain Pipeline – that will take Alberta crude from Fort McMurray to refineries and markets in the United States (Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) and in Canada (Kitimat and Vancouver)… there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit. Unfortunately, there are no signs that that’s going to happen any time soon.
In 1868 the Lakota and the U.S. government signed a peace treaty at Fort Laramie which guaranteed that the Black Hills would remain with the Lakota Nation, and that the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming would be closed to White settlement. However, just six years later, in 1874, an army expedition led by, of all people, George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills at French Creek and before you could say “Fort Laramie Treaty,” White miners swarmed into the Black Hills and began digging mines, sluicing rivers, blasting away the sides of mountains with hydraulic cannons and clear-cutting the forests in the Hills for the timber. The army was supposed to keep Whites out of the Hills. But they didn’t. A great many histories will tell you that the military was powerless to stop the flood of Whites who came to the Hills for the gold, but the truth of the matter is that the army didn’t really try.
The Fort Laramie Treaty still stands as a valid agreement and the Lakota have never given up their claim to the Hills, nor have they stopped fighting for the land’s return. So I can only imagine how they felt as they watched Six Grandfathers being turned into a national tourist attraction. Six Grandfathers is the mountain in the Hills that became Mount Rushmore after it was renamed for a New York lawyer in 1885.
Then in 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken. The solution, however, wasn’t to return the Hills to the Lakota. Instead the court instructed that the original purchase price of $25,000 plus interest be paid to the tribe. After the long addition was over, the total came to over $106 million.
$106 million. And as they had done in 1875, the Lakota refused the settlement. Money was never the issue. They wanted the Hills back. As for the money, it stays in an interest-bearing account to this day.
From a Native perspective, Indian land is Indian land. From a contemporary, somewhat legal North American perspective, Native land is land that belongs to the federal government and is on indefinite loan to a certain category of Native people. To say that these two views are in conflict is to state the obvious. Indian land as Indian land was certainly the idea behind early treaties and agreements.
One of the great phrases to come out of the treaty process is “as long as the grass is green and the waters run.” The general idea behind the phrase is not new. Charlemagne supposedly used such language in the eighth century, when he declared that “all Frisians would be fully free, the born and the unborn, so long as the wind blows from heaven and the child cries, grass grows green and flowers bloom, as far as the sun rises and the world stands.”
Great Britain, the United States and Canada, depending on how you want to count, signed well over 400 treaties with Native tribes in North America. I haven’t read them all, but none of the ones I have read contains the phrase. So, I’ve always wondered if “as long as the grass is green and the waters run” was ever actually used in a treaty.
I’m betting that poetic constructions such as “as long as the grass is green and the waters run,” “Great White Father,” and “Red Children” were part of the performances, the speeches and the oral promises that attended treaty negotiations and did not necessarily find their way into the official transcript.
Treaties, after all, were not vehicles for protecting land or even sharing land. They were vehicles for acquiring land. Almost without fail, throughout the history of North America, every time Indians signed a treaty with Whites, Indians lost land. I can’t think of a single treaty whereby Native people came away with more land than when they started. Such an idea, from a nonNative point of view, would have been dangerously absurd.
In fact, treaties have been so successful in separating Indians from their land that I’m surprised there isn’t a national holiday to honour their good work. But we could fix that. We could, if we were so inclined, turn Columbus Day and Victoria Day into Treaty Day. After all, Columbus didn’t discover America, and Queen Victoria never set foot in Canada… Of course, no one in Canada or the United States is going to support a holiday that isn’t a celebration of national power and generosity, so we’d have to disguise it, much the way we do Thanksgiving.
Now I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think treaties are a bad idea. Treaties aren’t the problem. Keeping the promises made in the treaties, on the other hand, is a different matter.
One of the complaints that Whites have had about Aboriginal people is that they didn’t know what to do with land or that they weren’t using the land to its full potential. And North America has been quick to rally around the old aphorism “use it or lose it.” Ironically, Canada currently finds itself in a pseudo-Native position with regard to the far north. Knowing that the Arctic is a treasure trove of oil and gas, minerals and precious metals, and fish, the United States has been pushing jurisdictional boundaries, insisting that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway rather than a part of Canada. In 1969, the United States sent the S. S. Manhattan to sail into the Passage without first getting Canadian permission. In 1985, the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea did the same thing. Nasty words flew back and forth. One solution to this problem that is being bandied about is to strike a treaty, wherein the United States recognizes the Passage as Canadian waters and Canada gives the United States the right to travel the waterway unimpeded.
A treaty with the United States. That should work out well. Lost in all of this gunship diplomacy was the 1953 saga of 87 Inuit who were moved from Port Harrison to Grise Fiord. The official reason Canadian bureaucrats gave for the move was that it would allow the Inuit to continue to live off the land and maintain their traditional ways. The unofficial reason was that Canada wanted to use the Inuit as placeholders in the continuing debate over who had territorial rights to the High Arctic and its resources. The government has always maintained that the families who relocated did so voluntarily, while the Inuit maintain that the moves were forced.
Wherever the truth lies, it is amusing to watch politicians validating Canada’s land claims in the far north on the backs of Aboriginal people. It’s ours, Ottawa tells the world. Our people are there. When it comes to the matter of land, one of the key questions is “What is the proper use of land?” This is both an historical and a contemporary consideration in Native rights. In the early days, hunting and gathering were seen as inferior uses of the land compared to farming. Where Indians did farm, their farming practices were considered inferior to those of Whites. And these days, heaven help the tribe or band that wishes to keep a section of land in its natural state when a golf course or a ski resort or a strip mine comes looking for a home.
Sometimes, a close reading of history is helpful in understanding the question of land and sometimes representative stories will do just as well. Personally, I prefer stories. And I happen to have several that you might consider.
Adapted from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Doubleday Canada). Reprinted with permission.