An Imaginary Conversation with Jeff Corntassel

“Imagine someone knocks at your door one day, and asks to come in. You don’t know the person, but despite your suspicions you are curious and it is cold outside, so you let him in. He speaks a strange language, but seems to be asking to stay a little while. You have lots of space, and you see his need, so you let him in.

The next day another person comes along, a friend of your first guest. This one also wants to stay, and you still have lots of room, so you agree. The strangers start unpacking, and make themselves at home in your living room. You visit occasionally, but more often you stay back in another part of the house, and leave the strangers to their own devices.

One day you walk into the living room, and ten more people are there. The first and second stranger somehow communicate to you that these are their family members. They ask for more room, so you show them the bedroom. Soon they have moved in their stuff, and you find them tearing down walls and redecorating. You confront them but they become belligerent, and keep taking over more of your house, as more friends and family arrive. They don’t even ask anymore. Desperate, you stake out a corner in the basement, but they decide they want that too.

Finally you had enough. You tell the strangers they either have to move off your property, or pay you for the house they’ve taken over. The strangers act surprised. “This is not your house. It was empty, so anyone can claim it. Besides, you weren’t using the house to its full potential.” In their opinion, you aren’t entitled to it.

You are left with a difficult challenge: How do you deal with the strangers who have taken over your house, and now believe it is theirs?”

~ Excerpt from Nation to Nation – Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada

 

—“Thousands of generations of relating to things in a given way give rise to cultural meaning attached to words”. ~Peter Cole

—
—“My very real situation is that I am here speaking not my language to you, and in doing so, realize that it is I who must frame my thinking into another language. A language which excludes all of my cultural understanding as though it were non-existent“ ~Peter Cole

 

An IMAGINARY INTERVIEW BASED ON: Re-envisioning resurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination by Jeff Corntassel

The following writing is based on a class project where the given task was to present on an assigned paper. Rather than the overused Powerpoint presentation, our group decided to re-write the text as an interview – an interpretation of his writing as we understand it.

 

Reporter – Here in our studio today is Jeff Corntassel. I will begin by asking him tough questions and perhaps we can find some answers on the way

 

So, Jeff, great to have you here today!

 

Jeff – Thanks for having me

 

Rep: Now, Jeff, as I understand it, you have been inspired by an incident in 2010 when 3 representatives of the Mohawk people attended the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia. There, they were asked questions like:

-In your region of the world, are you still connected to nature?

-Is your community and your people still in tune with the natural world?”

-What is the example that your community is giving to all the surrounding communities about how to live sustainable with the environment, what are you showing them?”

 

Finally, when the group responded that they were struggling to try to maintain their identity and live in a sustainable way yet were not really connected to nature, they were asked: ‘What makes you Indigenous?’

 

Let me dive right in then and get to the core of our conversation today. Jeff,  “How will your ancestors and future generations recognize you as Indigenous?”

 

Jeff – Hah, you really don’t beat around the bush. Well, I think the question that I have to ask myself fist is whether I myself am able to recognize myself as Indigenous. And I think that Being Indigenous today means struggling to reclaim and regenerate one’s relational and place-based existence by challenging the ongoing, destructive forces of colonization.

 

Rep – Sounds like you are facing a mountain of a challenge

 

Jeff – Some might say we do. I like to take the more optimistic view and claim that what I call ‘everyday acts of resurgence’ will get us most of the way there.

You see, within a Canadian context, colonialism has created a disconnect from land, culture, and community. This has resulted in much political chaos and social discord within First nations communities and the collective dependency of First Nations upon the state”.

Perhaps most tragically, this disconnection has led to the erosion of an ethic of universal respect and responsibility that used to be the hallmark of indigenous societies”

 

Rep – could you give us an example of acts of resurgence?

 

Jeff – Yes, there are many everyday practices of resurgence that aim to heal our disconnect from our culture, community and the land we live in. They aim to lead us back to a solid understanding and awareness of our identity and place in the world.

You can think of it in terms of peoplehood where language, homeland, ceremonial cycles, and sacred living histories were all once interconnected and must be woven back together if our people are to survive.

Stories that are told and re-told, songs that are sung and re-sung, ceremonies that are performed and re-performed through the seasonal rounds are the foundations for resurgence and to finding back to our true selves.

Only then will we have the courage and imagination to envision a life for us not dependent on the state.

 

Rep – You mention that colonization has degraded the ethic of responsibility and respect. How can resurgence restore this loss?

 

Jeff – Many of our stories carry moral and ethical lessons on how we are to conduct ourselves and what our responsibilities are. In a global world with a humdrum of voices raining in from all corners, these stories provide us with a solid grounding of our values.

 

Rep – I have to ask you. Are you not sometimes being too critical? Have there not been improvements in, for example, upholding and restoring the rights of Indigenous communities in court, our legislation or Constitution even? Do you not benefit from the resource sharing agreements that have been put in place, when, for example, minerals are extracted from your territory or pipelines build through your lands? Has the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada not made strides in righting past wrongs? What is your sense of justice?

 

Jeff – Whew, you asked some very good questions, very controversial questions to which I do not have all the answers. Let me put it this way. A resource, rights and reconciliation based discourse falls within what I like to refer to as : “Operationalizing the politics of distraction”. They are tools of colonial entities to separate us from our homelands, cultures, and communities.

 

Rep – I think I know what you mean. Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, Indigenous communities do not have the equivalent for the word ‘rights’ in their languages.

 

Jef – Yes. Rights are derived from state centric forums. We act based not on rights, but on ‘responsibilities’ to the natural world that have come about from our long-standing relationships with our homelands.

Political/legal rights-based approaches do not offer meaningful restoration of Indigenous homelands and food sovereignty. Nor do they address the urgency of the struggle – the revitalization of traditional cultures, as well as community roles and responsibilities.

You have to understand: This is a struggle that is much more spiritual than one dependent on rights or justice.

 

Rep – So it is a difference between restorative and retributive justice?

 

Jeff – Yes, you could say that. But, before I forget… a few words on reconciliation. Why do you think my people want to be reconciled?

 

Rep – Well, reconciliation is the point where truth, mercy, justice, and peace converge. It allows victims and perpetrators to come together and be equally engaged towards recognizing and forgiving past wrongs and finding a common way forward. Is this not a powerful proposition?

 

Jeff – Ahh…but you see, as you said, reconciliation tends to relegate all committed injustices to the past and in such legitimates the status quo”. BUT, colonialism is not the past. It is very much present. So, let me say “No Reconciliation without restitution”.

 

Rep – Are resource sharing agreements not a form of restitution? Are you not benefiting from ownership of your land?

 

Jeff – Nonsense!! In western culture, a resource is connected to ownership, title, value and market transactions. We don’t consider our land to be our resource but rather live in kinship relationships with our environment. You see, resources can be lost in transactions, but not kinships.

 

Rep – I am sure that there are many other voices that would like to weigh in on this conversation and that might like to challenge your perspective. Unfortunately they will have to wait their turn. For now, I would like to thank you for your being here today. Before you leave us, could you give our listeners some advice on how they can work towards a resurgence of their own identity?

 

Jeff – Sure. Here are some suggestions. Speak to your elders and discover your culture, spiritual teachings and knowledge of the land; build family relationships; and rediscover what it means to have a sustainable land-based economy.

Most importantly, do not lose connection to your language and dare to envision and dream of a better future based on our own Indigenousness.

 

Rep – Thank you Jeff. That’s it for our program today. To our attentive audience, I hope that this exchange has questioned some of your assumptions and made you think. I want to encourage you to keep the conversation going and to find back to your own culture.

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