Indigenous Non-Fiction: We Have a History

This Place is a hearty place, an artful place, full of resonant emotion.   

Reviewed by Gail Picco

This Place: 150 Years Retold, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, Brandon Mitchell, et al., Forward by Alicia Elliott, Highwater Press, May 17, 2019, 296 pp. $36.00

This Place: 150 Years Retold begins in 1867, the year Canada was created and “the moment colonialism started to creep against this land,” writes award-winning author, Alicia Elliott in the forward, and whose debut novel, A Mind Spread Out on the Groundwas reviewed by Diane Hill in this space on August 15th.  

“I’ve never liked the phrase ‘History is written by the victors,’” Elliott writes. “And just because stories don’t get written down, it doesn’t mean they are forever lost.” 

This Place proves the point. Over the course of 300 pages, this lushly illustrated graphic anthology tells 10 Indigenous stories of the past 150 years. 

We hear about Anne Bannatyne, the daughter of Andrew McDermott and Sarah McNab, a Métis-Saulteaux woman who, in Annie of Red River, horse-whips Charles Mair, a Canadian nationalist, journalist and vocal opponent of Louis Riel, after he wrote disparagingly about Métis women. (Katherena Vermette; Illustration: Scott B. Henderson; Colours: Donovan Yacuik)

In Tilted Ground, Sonny Assu writes about trying on his great-great grandfather Chief Billy Assu’s regalia at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (formerly Museum of Man), with a permission note from his grandma. He goes on to weave a haunting tale about Chief Billy Assu in the lead-up to the criminalization of the potlach in 1884, complete with a few panels of Sir John A. MacDonald helping himself to swigs from his desk flask as he muses about amendments to the Indian Act. (Illustration by Kyle Charles, Colours by Scott A. Ford)

“We must place an iron hand on the shoulders of the Red Man. The Departmental Officers and all clergymen united in affirming that it is absolutely necessary to put this practice down! This Indian “festival” is debauchery of the worst kind!”

David A. Robertson’s story Peggy is about Francis Pegahmagabow, a decorated WWI veteran known for his effectiveness as a sniper. (Illustration and colour by Natasha Donovan)

Two indigenous boys, Richard Cardinal, the subject of an Alanis Obomsawin documentary, and Teddy Bellingham, an Asinhinaabe boy who lived in Smiths Falls, Ontario, inspired Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm to write an aching story about the lives (and deaths) of Indigenous children in care. (Illustration by Ryan Howe & Jen Storm, Colours by Donovan Yaciuk)

This Place is a breathtakingly beautiful resource that presents an opportunity for Indigenous children and youth to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. The format of the graphic novel underlines that valour. 

“It tells tales of resistance of leadership, wonder and pain, of pasts we must remember and futures we must keep striving towards,” Alicia Elliott writes.

This anthology is also a gift—a priceless gift of history—to the non-Indigenous people of Canada who want to know the stories of Canada’s Indigenous people so we don’t, at the very least, come to the conversation with an empty head, a pocketful of failed policy and a needy look of bafflement on our faces.

Stories tell the story more than any academic treatise, piece of population research or government report can. This Place is a hearty place, an artful place, full of resonant emotion. 

There is an incredible group of Indigenous writers, artists and musicians working in Canada today. Their voices offer us no excuse. We are lucky. 

At the end of the anthology, the editors and publisher decided to provide biographical information about the group of 20 writers, illustrators and colourists who created This Place. Thank you. Make note of their names. With any luck at all, we’ll be hearing and seeing more of their work soon. 

Contributors to This Place: 150 Years Re-told Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Author), Sonny Assu (Author), Brandon Mitchell (Author), Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley (Author), Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley (Author), David A. Robertson  (Author), Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Author), Jen Storm (Author), Richard Van Camp (Author), Katherena Vermette (Author), Chelsea Vowel (Author), Alicia Elliott (Foreword), Tara Audibert (Illustrator), Kyle Charles (Illustrator), GMB Chomichuk (Illustrator), Natasha Donovan (Illustrator), Scott B. Henderson (Illustrator), Andrew Lodwick (Illustrator), Scott A. Ford (Illustrator), Donovan Yaciuk (Illustrator), Ryan Howe (Illustrator)

(Gail Picco is the editor of the CSP Book Blog.)

The colonialism of philanthropy and how money can be turned into medicine

By Gail Picco, October 4, 2019

Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Edgar Villanueva, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, October 16, 2018, 240 pp. $25.36

With a forward by Jennifer and Peter Buffet, the son and daughter-in-law of Warren Buffet whose net worth is currently estimated at $82 billion, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance is aimed at people who control the flow of money, people involved with foundations or those of independent wealth.

The author Edgar Villanueva has worked at several foundations and, on his own, directed the expenditure of $127 million since 2005. He calls himself a “rarity,” a Native American working in the field of philanthropy. He grew up in North Carolina, a member of the Lumbee Tribe, in the third poorest county in the entire United States.

Even as he works in it, and his descriptions are more exact because of it, he refers to the field of philanthropy as “a living anachronism.” 

“Philanthropy moves at a glacial pace,” he writes. “Epidemics and storms hit, communities go under water literally and metaphorically. Black and brown children get shot dead or lose their youth inside jail cells, families are separated across continents, women are abused and beaten and raped, all of Rome burns while we fiddle with another survey on strategies, another study on impact.” 

But he claims philanthropy as a family. His family.

“This is philanthropy,” he says. “It is (we are) the family that embarrasses me and infuriates me. But it’s still my family, my relations, and I believe in redemption. It’s from the place of calling this family to a better self that I write.

“Philanthropy, honey, it’s time for an intervention.”

Villanueva intervenes with language not commonly heard in the philanthropic sphere. 

He argues that, at its core, philanthropy is colonialism. There’s the haves and the have-nots, the us and them, with us being mostly “white saviours” and experts and them being needy, urban, poor, disadvantaged, at risk and so on.

You can’t have colonialism without white supremacy, he writes, and you can’t have white supremacy without racism. But he says, “I use the term ‘white supremacy’ instead of ‘racism’ because it is explicitly names who in the system benefits and—implicitly—who bears the burden.”

He dissects colonization for the modern audience.

“Conquering is one thing: you travel to another place and take its resources, kill the people who get in the way, and then go home with your spoils. But in colonization, you stick around, occupy the land, and force the Indigenous people to become you. It’s like a zombie invasion: colonizers insist on taking over bodies, minds, and souls of the colonized.”

And he reports on the results of initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion, often lumped together using the acronym DEI.

“It is undeniably difficult for people of colour to be successful in the ivory tower institutions of wealth. The few of us who have pushed through and stayed for more than a decade have learned to coach each other through the racism, the weirdness, the guilt, the uncomfortable power dynamics.”

He writes that “tokens end up on tiptoe, always on our best behaviour. This is heightened by the sense that we still often have the feeling that we are representing our entire race, that everything we do will reflect on all other Latinos or Blacks or Asian Americans or Natives. Who’s going to speak truth to power when there could be negative consequences for everyone who looks like you, not just in this moment but into the foreseeable future?”

At this point, it might be logical for the reader of this review to think, “how does this guy even have a job in philanthropy?” “He’s basically calling everyone with wealth a white supremacist.” 

But Villanueva has not crawled out to the end of the biggest limb on the philanthropic tree and is looking back at a metaphorical saw. His work has the support of the Buffets (as noted in the forward) and is blurbed by the CEO of the Amalgamated Bank and the CEO of The California Endowment.  He thanks the Arcus Foundation, California Wellness Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Solutions Project for “providing support for the writing of this book.”

And that could be because Villanueva is offering what he sees as a way forward with specific steps, tough steps, but forward movement, nonetheless. 

He views money as being value neutral. “It’s just a stand-in for the materials we used, the services granted, the responsibility shouldered. It’s a tool to reflect the obligations people develop to each other as they interact.” He says money like water. It is a life-giving element or something that can be used destructively by forcing it through water cannons.

He believes money can be turned into medicine.

And he describes a seven-step process that foundations—or any institution—can undergo to help reconcile inequity: 

  • Grieve: Understand the trauma created by colonization
  • Apologize: Offering official apologies to people who have borne the burden of white supremacy
  • Listen: “Why is it so difficult for people and institutions of wealth to listen,” Villanueva writes. “This is the power dynamic, the white saviour mentality. They believe they know more than others and know what’s best for others.” 
  • Relate: “No more ivory towers. How can you serve disabled people if your rooms are not accessible to them? How can you serve trans people if your washrooms are not welcoming to them?”
  • Represent: Get close to the things that matter. Have representatives of the people you serve as part of the decision-making process.
  • Invest: Be congruous with your granting. Making climate change grants while investing in fossil fuel companies, for example, makes no sense. And use your money. Using 5% of a fund and leaving 95% in investments is not doing the best you can.
  • Repair: American foundations have a combined $800 million in assets. Villanueva writes that “it is wealth that was made on the back of Natives, African-Americans and low-wage workers. Reparations are due.”

The idea of philanthropy as being “generous donations to good causes” is being challenged today.  As wealth accumulates at the top 1% of society, the motives of philanthropists trying to whitewash, pinkwash or greenwash their reputations by giving away small portions of their wealth are being questioned. Villanueva is someone trying to do it from the inside. 

It remains to be seen whether the sector, in general, can hear the inside voices, before the roar of the outside voices gets too loud.

(Gail Picco is the editor of the CSP Book Blog.)

An indispensable guide to respect

Reviewed by Christopher Barry

By Christopher Barry, October 4, 2019

Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips and Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality, Bob Joseph, Page Two Books, May 9, 2019, 208 pp., $19.75

I read Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Have Known About The Indian Act during the summer, so was looking forward to reviewing Indigenous Relations: Insights Tips and Suggestions to Make Reconciliation A Reality, which he wrote with Cynthia Joseph.

Bob Joseph is a hereditary chief and an Indigenous relations trainer. Cynthia Joseph is a lawyer and together the authors take the reader through an encompassing scope of learning.

What is noteworthy, and adds to the power of the message, is their tone and approach to reconciliation. First Nations, Metis and Inuit have so many reasons to be angry. Instead, the authors recognize that the road to reconciliation, both for organizations and individuals, lies in understanding and communication and respect. The calmness of the offering reflects its serious intent and the knowledge that our journey as Canadians together is a step-by-step process. 

Indigenous Relations is a remarkable book. 

Well written, practical and concise, it is an indispensable guide to respecting cultural differences and improving personal relationships and organization interaction with Indigenous Peoples, whether as clients or members of an employee team.

No one can dispute that Canada’s past relationship with Indigenous Peoples is a shameful history. The infamous Doctrine of Discovery, the Indian Act and the ongoing effects of colonialism are never far from the surface when working with or offering service to Indigenous Peoples and communities. 

The path to reconciliation began in 1982 when the rights of Aboriginal Peoples were recognized in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, continued in 1998 when the federal government made the Statement of Reconciliation and in 2008 Prime Minister Harper delivered a formal apology to residential school survivors and their families.  

More recently, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its Final Report; the first volume titled Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.

The report, based on the statements of tens of thousands of survivors, shocked many Canadians, who then asked, “Now that I know, what can I/we do to help right these wrongs?”

The TRC’s Final Report included ninety-four Calls to Action, guidelines for moving forward together in a spirit of reconciliation.

The 92nd Call to Action focuses on how respectful organization or business dealings can contribute to reconciliation.

This book offers practical tips for carrying out that 92nd Call to Action in an organization setting. 

A first step on any reconciliation journey is to be culturally competent. If you haven’t taken Indigenous cultural competency training or lived in an Indigenous community, you may lack essential understanding of how integral cultural competency is to reconciliation.  Incorporating reconciliation into your work and daily life means acknowledging and letting go of negative perceptions, myths and stereotypes. There is a great deal of myth busting in this book. 

The authors emphasize how critical it is to initiate and develop relationships with an awareness of these impacts: poorer health, lower levels of education, inadequate housing, lower income levels, higher levels of incarceration, higher rates of suicide and higher rates of unemployment.

If, for example, your mandate is to develop for your organization a recruitment and retention strategy, then you have to understand the history behind the lower-than-average education attainment levels, why not having a driver’s licence is an impediment to arriving at work on time, and why seasonal activities and community commitments may take precedence in Indigenous Peoples’ lives.

The book takes great pains to show the reader that learning about the history, worldview, culture, values and traditions of each community you work with is a helpful thing.

One of the most common mistakes non-Indigenous people make when engaging with Indigenous communities is not recognizing the cultural diversity of Indigenous Peoples. 

There is a misconception that First Nations (over 600 nations and 2000 reserves) are one homogenous group who share the same culture, traditions, language, worldviews, needs and desires. That could not be farther from the truth. In British Columbia alone there are over 200 First Nations communities and they represent 60 per cent of the First Nations languages spoken in Canada.

What for example, is the difference between the terms Indigenous and Aboriginal, and does it matter? You quickly learn that it certainly does. 

There are other chapters dealing with Indigenous Identity and Corporate Governance; Recognizing Indigenous World Views and the Circle of Understanding; Working with Communities: Employment Barriers and Other issues; Understanding Treaties, Then and Now; Myth vs Reality (Misconceptions); The RESPECT program: A Path toward Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples; and The Personal Side of Reconciliation.

Charity professionals and all those whose Mission and Vision include service to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples should read this book. You will set it down in the certain knowledge that there is so much still to do, and energized by the fact that we have the tools to change and begin to remedy the past.

(A former combat paratrooper and Logistics officer in the Canadian Army, Christopher Barry has worked as interim CEO or COO for a wide range of charities.)

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