Friday, July 27, 2007

What Happens When Colonialism Impacts Indigenous Peoples? The Fight!

Now, I know the title of this post is a little dramatic, but I chose it to illustrate a point. The point is that although this blog is about indigenous peoples and their contemporary issues, it is not meant to be romantic in its output. Rather, I am trying to highlight contemporary indigenous peoples issues in all their complexity. Not until both the romanticism and the cynicism are gone can we truly address contemporary indigenous people’s issues in a meaningful way. Or so at least I argue.

So, what is the case that I’m talking about here? Well, up north the Canadian government is currently forcing First Nation indigenous peoples to decide who owns the land. This process, one that was in many ways foreign to First Nation peoples a few generations ago, is usually put under the rubric of treaty and reservation making. In the United States we did this to the contemporary American Indians over the period of about 100 years, from roughly the early 1800s to the turn of the twentieth century. That process resulted in today’s American Indian reservations and federally recognized tribes (which stands at 562).

In Canada this process is still going on. Just like in the United States, indigenous groups that historically called a large area of mutually overlapping territories their homelands now have to designate on a map exactly who owns what. This is fine when there is only one indigenous group claiming ownership or rights to a particular area, but when several do, things get even more complicated. In fact, as is happening right now between the Tsawwassen First Nation and the Semiahmoo First Nation, colonial processes are forcing the two indigenous groups to fight each other. This is the result of the Semiahmoo claiming that some of the lands and rights that will be given to the Tsawwassen actually falls within traditional Semiahmoo territory.

Seems simple therefore, just let the two tribes work out the boundary issues and then treaties can be signed. As I said above, indigenous peoples issues are not nearly as simple. The Canadian government, over the course of 11 years, has failed to consult with the Semiahmoo. “It’s absolutely outrageous that in this day and age, after Haida and other Supreme Court of Canada decisions about the government’s legal duty to consult with First Nations people, that it has failed to do so yet again,” says Semiahmoo Chief Willard Cook. So now the Semiahmoo have to fight not only the colonial Canadian government over this issue, but they also have to fight the Tsawwassen, who they hold no animosity toward.

The Semiahmoo court documents show that under the Canadian British Columbia treaty process, a native band is not obliged to show documented proof of its territorial claim. As Semiahmoo lawyer Michael Ross noted, “all they have to do is draw lines on a map.” In fact, the Semaihmoo people are satisfied that they have proof of their territorial claims in writing going back to the Douglas Treaty of the 1800s.

So here we have a situation where an indigenous group is continuing to face colonial pressures from the dominant government, while at the same time also having to deal with its indigenous neighbors, all over land that was never “owned” just a few generations ago. What is either group to do? The treaty process is forced upon them; they must mark on a map who owns what. Ancient practices of mutual stewardship are not allowed in today’s global economic market where resources are number one. Like in the larger world, indigenous peoples face a one-sided battle: they can fight to benefit themselves and their tribe, but it gets increasingly hard if they try to maintain any semblance of traditional lifeways.

Personally, I don’t see a way out of the situation unless the Canadian government ends the treaty making process and allows indigenous First Nation peoples to develop their own form of land stewardship. This, however, I don’t see happening. As the Semiahmoo are well aware, the implications of this battle can have far reaching consequences for other First Nation peoples that are also dealing with overlapping land claims. The only way around this colonial force is if the First Nation bands get together and form their own governing body that can make decisions for all. Then one band can step down in the eyes of Canada, one band can sign the treaty and claim the land, and the Tsawwassen and Semiahmoo can mutually use the overlapping territory. It’s like companies do in business. For a giant conglomerate that buys up everything, then redistribute all of the companies resources to its members in a way that it sees fit. Perhaps this is the future, giant indigenous people companies that can act in favor of the individual people of each tribe and that can redistribute the collectively owned resources equitably and indigenously.

Just my thoughts… we will see.

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Anonymous said...

I have read with interest your comments on the Tsawwassen and Semiahmoo First Nations’ treaty negotiations and I would like to add my own thoughts. I am an anthropologist who works in the field of treaty negotiation and other First Nations litigation research in B.C.. While, the First Nations of this region did not have distinct territorial boundaries in the pre-contact period, they did have definite notions of resource ownership. Resource procurement areas, such as salmon fishing spots, were owned exclusively by family groups. They were a highly stratified society (with noble families at the top and slaves at the bottom). The most important families had the best resource areas. Families could be very large and their members distributed throughout many villages. With the creation of Indian reserves by the colonial government, families ended up having members in a number of different reserves. These inter-group ties persisted in the colonial period. The overlapping claims between First Nations groups is reflective of the inter-family ties these entities share. So, not only are First Nations political entities in dispute, inter and intra-family politics are also at play.

Don't get me wrong, the colonial government's system of Indian administration and reserve creation is responsible for this situation. However, the current treaty situation in B.C. is a very complex interplay of the relationships between different Bands, elite family groups (some of whom are rivals), different First Nations political entities, “status” and “non-status” groups, the various levels and branches of government (federal, provincial, municipal and First Nation), industry (including big corporations) and a number of “boutique” law firms (which specialize exclusively in First Nations litigations and who reap multi-millions of dollars in legal costs from their First Nations clients). All of this is over-laid by a system of Indian Act administration which to this day is paternalistic to its core. The treaty process itself is plagued for many reasons (where would I begin?), among them long standing (in some cases decades long) litigations over unresolved resource and land use disputes between the negotiating parties.

The Tsawwassen and Semiahmoo First Nations are just two of the First Nations groups that lie within the large densely populated urban area of Vancouver and the lower Fraser Valley of south-western British Columbia and their case is just one example of over lapping claims in the region (there are numerous others). The solution you suggest (land stewardship by the First Nations groups) would be unworkable here as there is no land to steward, per se, as the land is fully developed or in the hands of private owners. Treaty settlements in urban areas are largely in the form of cash pay-outs.

Peter N. Jones said...


Great comments. I couldn't agree with you more. Check out this newer post to see what I was trying to put forth concerning the solution I suggested. Not perfect, but better than we have now.


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