Making Thanks for a ‘Gift’ Unwillingly Given
by Karen E. McCallum
Sitting yesterday at the University of Victoria (an institution built on what was once a Lekwungen village), I got to thinking about the acknowledgements section of my Master’s Thesis, which I’m due to finish for August 2013. I’m not sure what to write exactly (whom do I privilege there to be thankfully acknowledged?), so I did a bit of research: I found acknowledgements sections where people thank each family member, roommate, and neighbour by name. I also read one in which the student thanked members of her thesis writing group, thanking them for their “commiseration and companionship”.
I chose to begin with territory acknowledgements and that is where this story really begins—I decided it would be right that I thank members of all the nations who had tolerated and hosted me on their territories. I chose to thank only those nations whose land I had remained on for years at a time, an uninvited guest and visitor who arrived one day and decided to stay, mostly oblivious of the meaning of my visitation. In the short paragraph-length space I was able to designate for territory acknowledgments and thanks, I was unable to articulate my thought process; so, that is what I aim to do now— publicly acknowledge not only my thanks, but also try and think through the impossible complexity of making thanks for a gift unwillingly given. What does it mean for me, a white, second-generation, settler scholar in territorial Canada, to be thankful for the privileges and resources that enable me to live a good life here?
My family always intended to stay; they had faith in the Canadian government’s legal and moral rights to administer the sale of parcels of land. My family doesn’t know anything about the Chippewas of Lake Simcoe and Huron, members of the Ojibwe nation who still, as always, occupy the area. My family and I arrived as guests who never intended to leave, settlers who never considered their settlement a form of occupation. We are the worst kind of guests—we walked in like we owned the place! (And we thought we did.)
I want to thank the people of the Ojibwe nation, but just as “visitation” exceeds the terms of what I’m doing here, the sentiments bound up in “thank you” are never enough.
Thank you for tolerance—well, thank you for permitting my family and the government with whom I hold citizenship to steal your land and dishonour agreements that your ancestors and you fought and fight for to ensure your nation’s perpetuation, sovereignty, and future? “Thank you” for not kicking up more of a fuss that Lake Simcoe is poisoned by boat exhaust and that settlers like me have introduced all sorts of marine creatures that disturb the lake ecosystem—people say not to eat from the lake. Your nation is divided, now, between reserves set on parcels of land only a wee fraction of the land your ancestors were free to steward and be in relationship with. So much of the forest and the fertile lands are under the “ownership” of farmers spraying poisons into the earth, or under the concrete of the GTA’s sprawling suburbs. The people who live there now don’t know where the land came from—they think developers and realtors made it!
So how am I ever going to say “thank you”? I looked up how to say “thank you” in Ojibwe. I learned “migwetch”, then I learned “ani” and “boozhoo” for “hello” and then—then I thought of how faintly ridiculous I seemed, even to myself. Migwetch isn’t ever going to be enough.
Still, it’s something, right? So I wrote that into my acknowledgements section: “Migwetch to the Chippewas of Lake Simcoe and Huron for hosting and tolerating me as an uninvited guest.”
Then I turned my research to Hamilton, ON where I had attended McMaster University. Last night when I was chopping up a green pepper with an oversized chopping knife, I noticed that the brand on the knife blade read Oneida. I know that the Oneida, along with the Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, make up the members of the Six Nations Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee. Of course it isn’t news that non-Indigenous settlers use First Nations’ names and words to market unrelated products. However, the irony and eeriness of the blade named Oneida caused me to pause for breath in mid-slice.
My history background is paltry, but what I know is that the British promised a secure land holding to the Oneida because members of the Six Nations had been, primarily, allies to the British in the war with the Thirteen Colonies, during the American Revolution. Britain promised the Oneida a homeland, for their loyalty, of 300,000 acres (a fraction of their original 6,000,000—what a “gift”!). What Britain did, however, was secretly cede that land and more to the Americans without consultation with the Haudenosaunee—the land promised the Oneida was now out of British control and so the Oneida were cornered into signing the Treaty of Canandaigua with the American government in 1794, ceding millions of acres of their former territory to the U.S., but securing themselves a small area in upstate New York. Quickly on the heels of that treaty, the U.S. aggressively pushed for all First Nations to move West to get out of the way of settlement and development in the area. In an effort to push the Oneida out, the government, through a “special” act of parliament, whittled down their allotment to only 32 acres.
How much more could Americans and British/Canadians have stolen? And then some company, based on former Oneida territory, stole the nation’s name to market cookware.
How? How the hell is niá:wen, the Mohawk word for thank-you, or yawv́, the Oneida word for thank-you, ever going to say, “thank you, and I’m angry and sorry for everything?”
But, I wrote that into my acknowledgements section too: “niá:wen to the Haudenosaunee and members of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation for hosting and tolerating me as an uninvited guest.”
In my search for language, and saying thank you in a way that felt like more than a glib “thank you” (said in English and done with ease), I learned my most humbling history lesson in my search for the word “thank you” in the Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ languages. I live now in Victoria, BC, traditional territories of members of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, who traditionally spoke Lekwungen, but I go to school in the town of Saanich, B.C., where the local WSÁNEĆ peoples are doing some awesome language revitalization work. However, in my research I learned, to my dismay, that Lekwungen is a “sleeping language”—there are no living, fluent, language speakers. I went home that night and asked my friend, “How patronizing is it to say, ‘we colonized your people, sent them away, beat the language out of your children, killed Lekwungen speakers for simply being Coast Salish, and now your language isn’t dead— no it’s just sleeping?!’” It seems like telling someone that the cat is sleeping, that it has ‘gone to the farm,’ when it was really run over by a truck. No, it’s more like taking that cat out back, killing it because you don’t want it around any more, and then telling them that it’s just sleeping. I know that if the Lekwungen language is spoken again it will not be a result of it “waking up” from “sleep”. It will be because the Lekwungen people have raised the language from the dead: raised it back up out of the earth from where we have killed and laid its speakers in the ground. So tell me—how? How is “hay’sxw’qa”, the WSÁNEĆ word for “thank you”, ever going to be enough?
I am thankful for my life, and the health and happiness of my family, but I know that the high quality of our lives is currently dependent upon the low quality of life for Indigenous residents of Turtle Island, for whom displacement is ongoing, and colonization is an unending reality. I accept that as an uninvited “guest”— an unwanted settler descendent from unwanted settlers—it is morally imperative that my “thanks” be active and unsettled in implication. Just as “sorry” is shorthand for saying, “I’m sorry about what happened and I won’t let it happen again,” I understand my thanks for the “gift” of land, resources, opportunity, and life to signify that something has been activated by the words being spoken: “this gift is so valuable, and I have benefitted from it—I love it! But when I received it, I didn’t realize it was stolen. I took too much from it, I treated it like it was mine—but, now that I know it was stolen, I want to understand the terms by which I can give it back and make amends.”
Here in Victoria, the post-secondary schools have voluntarily adopted a policy that mandates that someone must make a territory acknowledgment at the opening of every event held for University business. But “thank you” in these contexts—thank you for the land upon which we convocate these students, or in my case, thank you for the land and resources I used to write my Master’s thesis—must never be understood passively. “Thank-you” acknowledges the unjustness, the messy awful-ness of bearing witness to and benefiting from colonialism everyday. But, for these thanks to mean anything at all, giving thanks must be understood as an acknowledgment, and a promise: “Thank you, and… I’m listening, I’m learning, I’m decolonizing, I’m resisting, I’m taking direction from Indigenous leaders and struggles, I’m acknowledging myself as a settler….”
As I take space up to outline my relation with territory acknowledgments and thanks, I am conscious that I am taking space, time, and energy up to forward what is ultimately a settler problem (you make a mess, you clean it up, right?). I justify this space-making exercise because I think that acknowledging the difficult, and ultimately unsatisfactory nature of making “thanks” is timely and pressing. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission finishes up its last year of funded operations, and all conscious settlers start or continue contending with the emptiness of words like “sorry” or “thank you”, we must all grapple and unpack “thanks” for what it really is: an active signifier of relations between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous residents. While saying “thanks” is one small way to make space every day for thinking about the operation of settler colonialism, the purpose of this short piece is to explain why “thank you” is, ultimately, an inadequate response. The “gift” of living on colonized territory demands a recognition of the ways that every settler of Turtle Island is morally obligated to think about the politics of living a settler life on occupied territory as a beneficiary of colonialism. I believe that, more often than not, the impetus to “thank” Indigenous peoples for the spoils of colonization already comes from a place of deep discomfort and recognition of the impossibly unjust story of our shared lives on Turtle Island. I believe that from that uncomfortable place settlers can come to recognize “thank you” as never enough. Nonetheless, and though never enough, I still speak the words—Niá:wen, Hay’sxw’qa, and Migwetch (for access to the land upon which I was born, raised, and educated.) It will never be enough. I hope, though, that the “thanks” I gesture to exceeds the conventional meanings of “thanks,” and is evocative of relational concepts like gratefulness, reciprocity and, possibly, retribution. Talk can grow legs, and talking openly might move us towards decolonization in unprecedented ways.