Membership in one's family, community, and nation are important markers of identity for all human beings. In the far past, Omàmìwininì individuals were born into an extended family and given a spirit name so that all their ancestors and the spirit beings in the natural world would recognize them as kin. At birth the placenta was buried around berry bushes and the umbilical cord was also tied to trees or buried. These practices connected the child to his/her homeland forever. It was the first set in building a relationship between the child and the natural world. Children were raised to recognize the natural world and all the spiritual beings that lived there as relatives who had their own responsibilities to fulfil as part of the larger Creative process of the Earth. Humans as well shad these responsibilities and as children grew up they were guided toward behaviour and actions that promoted harmony between themselves and their extended family, which included all of Creation. In the language this is known as Pimàdiziwin. Pimàdiziwin was obtained over one's lifetime through personal choice to interact with the world using the Seven Grandfather Teachings. These teachings of respect, humility, honesty, bravery, love, wisdom, and truth enabled individuals to act in ways that promoted sustainability. These Teachings were the centre of Omàmìwininì legal principles. They remain so today and are embedded in the Guiding Principles of the community.
As a result of settler colonialism, Omàmìwininì legal principles and ways of organizing ourselves was disrupted and we lost a lot of this knowledge of how our ancestors enacted and utilized these teachings and underlying principles to determine membership. We know that membership was fluid and much more flexible than it is now. The Indian Act and subsequent colonial legislation prevented the continuation of traditional conceptions of membership, and an individual's ability to legally belong to a community was determined by Canadian officials. Many people were stripped of their legal status as Indians, and this process continues on today. Most status Algonquin communities have many many relatives who have been stripped of status but who are still linked to the community via family ties and kinship. The Indian Act system is based upon patriarchy which ascribed lineage through men as opposed to women and any women who married a non-status person or a non-Indigenous person lost their status and was forced off reserves as were any children. Non-Indigenous women who married an Algonquin man gained status and so dis their children. This system was still in place until the Lovelace case in 1982 brought about Bill C-31. Unfortunately this did not fix the situation as men are now under the same auspices as women and people are loosing status much quicker....if things continue the way they are there will be no status Algonquins left in fifty years and Canada and Ontario will terminate remaining reserves and all monitory payments.
RE-ENVISIONING COMMUNITY: MEMBERSHIP AND BELONGING
Given this disastrous conception of membership and belonging, AAFNA has always resisted the idea of imposing Indian Act regulations on Omàmìwininì families who have long standing ties to the community and to our homeland. Because of the land claim process and the colonial encounters with the provincial and federal governments we were forced to constantly react against threats of charges for hunting, trapping or harvesting. As a community who will not join the claims process, and who will not ceed our interests and responsibilities in our homeland we will continue to face opposition from the claims process communities as well as the Canadian state. In spite of these colonial relations we will continue on as a historic community who has integrity because we have always held up our collective responsibilities to our ancestors and the spiritual beings who live with us in our homeland. We do not need Canada or Ontario to recognize us as individuals or as a community, as long as our ancestors and the spiritual beings in our homeland recognize us for who we are, thats all that matters. We have our extended families and together we can work toward becoming a strong and vibrant community.
As we move forward, this is an important time for us to go back and bring forward those teachings and legal principles from our ancestors and re-envision their applicability for our contemporary contexts. Leanne Simpson and Wendy Geniusz speaks about this as biskaabiiyang: returning to ourselves. On an individual level it asks us to evaluate how we have been personally affected by colonialism, and then rid ourselves of the physical, mental and psychological baggage that we carry as a result. The third part of this path is then to return to our traditional teachings for guidance and re-envison how we can utilize them in the contemporary context to create sustainable communities.
With respect to membership what teachings can we draw upon to re-envison our conception of membership and belonging? Once again, Wisakedjak narratives come to mind because of the notions of kinship and belonging that are embedded in them. For example, in the following story shared with Allison Skinner in the early 1900's reveals the fluidity of kinship:
"One night some wolves heard Wisakejak singing. The oldest says “I believe that is my eldest brother. He has a good song…watch for him, and run and say to him, ‘My uncle, what are you saying?’ When the wolves met up with Wisakejak, they told him that their father wanted to meet him. The father asked his elder brother what his song meant. Wisakejak told him and then decided that he would stay with the wolves for a while. Some time later, Wisakejak decided he wanted to leave, but he wanted one of his nephews to go with him. The old wolf allowed his youngest son to leave. "(as quoted in Inness, 2007.)
This narrative reveals that kinship and belonging were embedded in all relationships and that one had associated responsibilities. In this instance the old wolf has responsibilities to Wisakedjak and as an uncle to the young wolf, Wisakedjak also has responsibilities for his wellbeing and safety. It is community at work in the traditional sense of Omàmìwininì people. In this case, Wisakedjak is not a wolf, but they still consider him uncle and he considers them nephews. It is cultural context here and the actions and behaviour on the part of all participants in the story that enables sustainability. Omàmìwininì people took this responsibility very seriously. One example of this is that when Champlain came visiting back in the early 17th century he brought with him some French youths and asked for Omàmìwininì, Endat and other allied peoples to take in these youth and care for them over the winter. Iroquet, an Omàmìwininì leader, declined to do so because he was afraid something might happen to the boy because of his lack of knowledge of their ways and the landscape.
How can we redefine what it means to be a community member of AAFNA using these principles and teachings embedded in the narratives of Wisakedjak and how can we pick up those responsibilities and walk them in our lives to alter our own behaviour and interactions with each other and the natural world around us. These tenants are already embedded in AAFNA's guiding principles about caring for each other and working together in a good way to create a sustainable community. The plan of the council is to use them fully in all the work that we do. Additionally how can we use these principles and teachings to re-envision membership to emphasize the importance of having a cultural and spiritual connection to the community and homeland as opposed to just a genealogical one. Obviously, ancestry is important and connects us to our ancestors, but if they were more fluid and flexible in membership then how can we use the concept of biskaabiiyang to return to ourselves?