Re-Storying Omamìwìnini History

This blog is the first in a series of blogs that will share work that is in process to change my dissertation from 2007 into a book. Please read and feel free to share your comments. I hope to have the book published so your review and thoughts are welcome. This book is being co-authored by myself and Elder Shirley Williams. She was instrumental in guiding my understandings of Anishinàbe history and languages. In the book I use footnotes. However those don't seem to work in this web format so cited materials and sources have been given inside parentheses.

It begins with the following prayer:

Paula nidjinikàz, Ardoch nidonjabà, mikinàk nidodem. Kitchi-mìgwech Kichi-manido mìnwà nogoding. Kitchi-mìgwech gì mìzhyàng iw sa Bimàdziwin. Wìdòkwishnàng dji namàyàng gwayak Jimoseyàng. Kitchi-mìgwech Kichi-manido kinagego.

It’s important to begin this discussion on Omamìwìnini history with the above prayer, which thanks the Creator for this beautiful day and for this good life that we have as Anishinàbe people. It’s through the Creator’s guidance that we have a path to this good life. Gifted with beautiful visions of what this universe could be, the Creator internalized those visions, embodying them through sound, motion, touch, taste, and sight.  In this universe, new visions were birthed, including eshkikimi-kwe, the Earth, which was storied into being. Afterwards other spiritual beings on the earth were created and they participated in new acts of creation. Metaphors were created as these new beings engaged with and related within their homelands, and subsequently they storied their world. Human beings were birthed last and evolved over thousands of years. We too have been storied. Storied by the Creator, by lands and waterscapes, by other spiritual beings and by each other. 

I’m one of those stories. My parents storied me; their parents storied them, their parents and so on. As daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter, I occupy the forth position in the seven generations that my great grandparents would have considered as they went about their lives and interacted with their world. Their thoughts and experiences continue to travel through me to my children, to my grandchildren and to my great grandchildren who will complete that “seventh generation”. When I think about my own life, I know that the lives and experiences of my grandparents have impacted or benefited me. Just as I know that my life and experiences will impact or benefit my grandchildren. Our lives are cyclical, you see, constantly in connection with those who came before us and those who will come after. My ancestors storied my life and I will undoubtedly contribute to the stories unwinding in the future.

As such, I have a vested interest in Omamìwìnini history.  As an Omamìwìnini mother and grandmother, it’s my responsibility to do the work necessary to understand the past, as Omamìwìnini people would have perceived it so that I can share that with my family. This is easier said than done, given the settler colonial history that has been constructed over our homeland over the past four hundred years. Our lands have been re-storied through various colonial processes by French, English, Canadian, Ontario and Quebec setter societies whose histories have alienated us from the Kiji Sìbì. Nevertheless, it is my responsibility to unravel the colonial past and contribute to the re-storying of Omamìwìnini history. It’s a responsibility that I readily accept. 

Indigenous Orientations for History

Grappling with various theoretical orientations for research is a common experience in many graduate programs. As an Indigenous scholar, learning the ropes so to speak, the experience was heart wrenching but also profound. Critiques of Western historical theory were fairly straightforward given the damage done to Indigenous peoples and our homelands. Its like the Matrix, most of us realize that there is something wrong with the history that has been constructed in places like Canada, but you can’t quite put your finger on the point of origin, except to say that it started with Europeans. When I was doing my masters at the University of Connecticut I thought the issue was that there was not enough Indigenous historians to balance things out. Obviously this is an issue, however, it wasn’t until I was a student in the Indigenous Studies PhD Program at Trent University, engaging with Elders like Edna Manitowabi, Shirley Williams, Doug Williams, Ernie Benedict, Jan Longboat, and William Commanda, that I realized the problem is actually history itself. 

For decades, Indigenous scholars have been trying to call attention to the factors that continue to interfere with Indigenous autonomy at both personal and collective levels. I’ve certainly spent many sleepless nights thinking about it but could never quite put my finger on the root cause of our historical and contemporary dilemmas. Its obviously valid to attribute some of the fragmentation of our identity and consciousness to policies such as residential schools and the sixty’s scoop.  I also have no problem laying the blame for the initial breakdown in Omamìwìnini-Kanien’kehà:ka relations squarely at the feet of Canada’s founding father Samuel de Champlain. 

It’s easy and might I say empowering to ascribe blame to Europeans for much of what has happened to us as people. If we look deeply within ourselves for that inner truth we are forced to consider harsh questions. What role have we played in destabilizing our own relationships with the Natural World and each other? For instance, how did the participation of our ancestors in the fur trade contribute to the breakdown of Bimàdiziwin in our lives? How have our personal actions and collective decisions betrayed those Original Instructions that we were given in the early days of humanity? 

Accounting for our own agency in the continued colonization of the Natural World and each other is important for restorying our history. It’s also vital that we understand how settler colonial constructions of our homelands limited the options Omamìwìnini had in the past. Settler Colonialism and subsequent policies made it difficult for people to maintain their relationships with the Natural World and each other. This doesn’t excuse our past behavior as people, we have to own up to our own agency, but we also need to recognize that our ancestors did the best that they could in very difficult circumstances. The catastrophic losses of people from epidemics in the early years of contact combined with the introduction of Christianity and alcohol created fractures in our knowledge system. These ruptures led to shifts in consciousness about fur bearing animals such as beavers. Moving away from a consciousness that perceived Beavers as family destabilized Omamìwìnini relations with the Natural World. This loss of consciousness; the sense of what it meant to exist within Bimàdiziwin, this is an important story that must be reconciled in the present and future.

One again we are back to stories. Indigenous and Settler histories are nothing more than layers and layers of stories. The how and why of those stories is as important as the content within them. In settler North American contexts, stories were created and haphazardly strewn across the land and waterscapes. Very few of those stories have any real connection to the landscapes they discuss. In fact, most of the his’tories Canadians are familiar with were constructed for particular purposes that suited settler colonial goals and aspirations. Many were charged with the responsibility of celebrating the work of “founding fathers” and their efforts to carve out “New France,” “New Spain,” and “New England” in the Americas. In this process, Indigenous peoples appear as either ignoble or noble savages, never as autonomous peoples who had vast knowledge about living in the Americas. As a result settler society consciousness suffers from a kind of historical amnesia that is not unlike the plot in the matrix films. 

An image that comes to mind is that of Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. The paint represents the application of Settler history over this continent. In some areas the paint is quite thick completely erasing Indigenous histories. In other sections the paint is spotty thereby allowing bits and pieces of Indigenous knowledges about the past to escape. It also reminds me of the work of Franz Fanon, a critical African scholar writing in the early 1960’s. Fanon’s words really resonated with me because of his insight on settler societies. In speaking about settler colonialism he said it was “not satisfied with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By some kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.”(Fanon, Franz (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York, Grove Press: pg. 210.) The whitewashers referred to by Fanon in his work have been coined shape shifters in more contemporary scholarship by Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel. As Mohawk and Cherokee scholars they believe it is important to identify colonialism in its many forms as a first step, but then we need to quickly move on least we get caught up in the urge to “allow colonialism to be the only story in our lives.”(Alfred, Taiaiake. Corntassel, Jeff (2005). “Politics of Identity-IX: Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism.” Government and Opposition Ltd. Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishing: pg. 601.) 

If not colonialism, what is our framework? How are we to make sense of those fragments that protrude through the thin layers of paint? Many of us cling to these fragments because they continue to give meaning to our lives. We would not want to live without them. How do we separate those fragments from the colonial stories that dominate our consciousness so that we can construct an alternative past that is not weighed down by this colonial relationship? 

One possibility is to ground our research and re-storying in the land and waterscapes in our homelands. This would allow us to reestablish relationships with the various spiritual beings that exist in our homelands and repair our relationships with the Natural World. Language and culture are interconnected and therefore Anishinaabe language is another key element in understanding our history as people. Internalizing these cultural “tools” will better position us to begin the process of constructing a solid foundation from wince to create new stories and relationships that merge into the present and future while also weaving back to our ancestors. This foundation will not crumble under the weight of the thousands of multifaceted relationships emanating from the past. 

As the individual in the forth generation, with three generations back and three generations forward, I must begin this journey with myself and have faith that the trajectory I am on to restory our past will as Monique Mojica contends, transform colonial amnesia through the birthing of new stories. As part of this process it is vital that I trust in the Omamìwìnini knowledge that is encoded in my dreams, waking visions, and DNA.(Mojica, Monique (2009). “Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milkyway.” First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader. Eds. Monture, Patricia, McGuire, Patricia D. Kindle Edition. Inanna Publications: pg 218.) Mojica contends that when we make a decision to create from a base of ancestral knowledge, we confront the fragmentation or rupture in our pasts. Each fragment of research and creation contributes, accumulates, and adds up to something new that we can use to combat colonialism. ( Mojica, M. and R. Knowles (2009). Creation Story Begins Again: Performing Transformation, Bridging Cosmologies. Performing Worlds in Being: Native American Womens Theater. E. Armstrong, K. L. Johnson and W. A. Wortman. Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press2-6.) This is my hope that by taking this journey I am confronting that rupture in our pasts as Omamìwìnini people.

The process of self-critique and reflection is a key component of most Indigenous methodologies. It is often referred to as self-in-relation and calls upon individuals to begin with themselves and work outward from there to family, clan, community, nation, and world. (Frye Jean Graveline discussed the concept of self-in-relation in an Indigenous context in her 1998 text Circle Works. Its importance has been cited by numerous scholars, including Margaret Kovach (2010), and JM Iske-Barnes(2012). Graveline built on the work of other scholars such as Vine Deloria Jr. whose scholarship and activism spanned five decades.). In a research context this means turning a critical eye upon yourself and your own positionality with respect to a particular research topic. It is uncomfortable, because you are forced to examine yourself, your identity as a human being, and how you are best or worst suited to carry out research on a particular project.  You ask certain questions of yourself, such as, who am I in relation to this topic? Am I an insider or outsider? What are my connections to the knowledge system or language being discussed? Do I have sufficient understanding of language or culture to produce research that is, as Basil Johnson would say is done with, “the highest degree of accuracy?”(( Johnson, Basil (2013). “”Is That All There Is?” Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 2, Location 618.)).  We must ask ourselves further, why am I doing this research? What is the purpose of the research? Does a particular community, nation, or an organization need the research? Or am I doing it for my own intellectual curiosity? Will this project contribute to the goals and aspirations of Indigenous peoples or just my own career path?

These are difficult questions to consider as a scholar but they have to be addressed before you can begin. Research in an Indigenous context requires a high level of ethics and accountability because of the serious harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples in the past. Being Omamìwìnini doesn’t eliminate the need to consider ethics, in fact sometimes, it is harder to do research as an Indigenous person, because you have to be even more critical of yourself and think about not just those seven generations of humans, but also how your research might impact our relatives in the Natural World.  

In reflecting on my own positionality, I recognize that I am not a fluent Omamìwìninimowin speaker. I am really just beginning and am at the stage of a young child. As such my lack of fluency in the language limits the extent to which I can actually express knowledge and understandings of particular concepts in Omamìwìninimowin. This fact is always with me and pushes me to learn more language. On a positive note, this journey to understand Omamìwìnini history is also an opportunity to learn more and to make those deeper connections. Cultural competency comes with fluidity, however, and knowing that I cannot achieve that in the time frame of this project, I am working with fluent speakers to guide my interpretations of language and cultural contexts to assure that my interpretations have the highest degree of accuracy. The book is also a joint project with Elder Shirley Williams who has shaped my understanding of Anishinàbe histories and languages over the past fourteen years. She continues to guide me and provide a more cultural and linguistic path for theorizing and understanding our histories as Anishinàbe peoples.

This book is written primarily for Omamìwìnini people, but it is not representative of how all Omamìwìnini people think or construct history. It is one interpretation of the past, based upon the work that I have done over the last fourteen years to understand the lives of my ancestors who were birthed as a nation out of the Anishinàbeg Migration.  It’s important to understand the past through Omamìwìnini eyes so we can begin to access the knowledge and teachings left for us by our ancestors and the spiritual beings in our homeland. 

As such this book could have relevance for other Anishinàbeg communities as well. It may also be useful for allied settlers because it provides an alternative way of thinking about the construction of history and could be an ethical path to the re-storying of their own pasts on Turtle Island. William Commanda often shared that all people of this Earth are Indigenous to it and as such we were all given Original Instructions on how to live in a good way in our homelands. Most of us have forgotten those Original Instructions and we must look into the past for those teachings so that we can employ them in the present and future.

More to come....