Indigenous sins

Indigenous sins

Schechter middle schoolers hear First Nations leader

Wab Kinew, a First Nations leader from Canada, tells Schechter students of parallels between his people’s ordeals and the Jewish experience.
Wab Kinew, a First Nations leader from Canada, tells Schechter students of parallels between his people’s ordeals and the Jewish experience.

On Tuesday, a native American went to a Jewish day school in New Milford.

The story he told — of oppression and resisting assimilation — had enough parallels with the Jewish experience that you could almost forget that he was brought in to add life and depth to the middle school American history curriculum.

Wab Kinew is a legislator in the Canadian province of Manitoba. He is also an author, and a rapper whose first album won an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award. He is a member of the Ojibwe, which is one of the First Nations, as Canadians refer to the indigenous people of North America.

And Mr. Kinew was able to convince an auditorium of rapt middle schoolers at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County that the history they study isn’t over yet.

The visit was timed with the seventh grade’s study of American history, but even the fourth graders had studied native Americans as part of their studies of New Jersey history.

More than once, Mr. Kinew drew connections between his own experience and that of his Jewish audience. Jews also have suffered physically and culturally at the hands of European Christians.

“The culture I grew up in, the language I speak, helped shape a lot of American history,” he told the students. English words like totem and moccasin derive from his language, Ojibwe, he said, as do such place names as Michigan, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ottawa.

“The place I grew up in was called” — and here he recited a long stream of Ojibwe syllables — “which means Raven’s Nest Portage.

“About a hundred years ago a representative of the government showed up and said, ‘What do you call this place?’”

The government representative heard the Ojibwe name. “‘Indian reserve 35b it is,’” Mr. Kinew said. “It’s not a good sign when a government shows up and gives your people a number.”

Mr. Kinew balanced a stark if kid-friendly telling of his people’s history with the more recent reconciliation between First Nation people and other Canadians.

He told the students that he had met Nelson Mandela when he was a teenager. Mr. Mandela was in Toronto, and Mr. Kinew, the son of a local leader, Tobasonakwut, was representing his father. “I went up and gave him a gift, a piece of sage, to symbolize the friendship between our peoples.

“He said, ‘Is this something the Europeans gave to your people or is it something indigenous?’ I said it’s been used by our people since time immemorial. We had a little conversation about that. It will always stay with me.

“Here’s a guy who could have had the president of the United States on the phone and here I am, some native kid from the bush in the far north of Canada, and yet he’s got all the time in the world for me. He took time and treated me with respect and kindness. That’s an important quality of leadership, to value every single person.”

Mr. Kinew held up two indigenous North American leaders as role models of leadership and multicultural understanding.

“Tatanka Iyotanke — Sitting Bull — said something really remarkable: ‘In order for there to be peace, it’s not necessary for eagles to be crows.’ We don’t all have to be exactly alike. It’s a profound statement on its own, talking about how people from different backgrounds and ways of life can live together, and it’s even more remarkable in the context in which he said it.

“The American government was trying to exterminate his people. Women and children were dying as a result of the U.S. Cavalry. Even though he was living in a period of war and violence, he saw fit to recognize the humanity of people on the other side of the showdown.”

A 19th century Canadian First Nations leader, Saagachiiwe, proposed something even more radical, Mr. Kinew said. He proposed teaching a pair of European children to live his people’s ways, and that a pair of indigenous children be taught to live like Europeans. “Then our children can teach all of us to live like one another,” Mr. Kinew quoted him as saying.

“It’s a pretty cool idea this guy had. He understood that the key to having a multicultural society was education, that in order for us to be able to live with one another the foundation is to learn about one another.

“Walking in the halls and seeing some of the project you’ve done, it’s pretty clear to see that you’re living the teaching this old chief was talking about.”

But Canadian history didn’t play out as Saagachiiwe had hoped it would.

Under the Indian Act, which codified Canada’s relationship with the First Nations in 1876, “For many years, it was illegal for people to leave reservations,” Mr. Kinew said. “There was no freedom of movement. It barred people like me from having jobs, to sell things at market, or to farm or to sell agricultural goods, and on and on.

06-2-L-wab-ssds-three“Now, many of the worst aspects of the Indian Act have been taken away. I have freedom of movement. But some of the provisions are still on the books.”

He showed a slide of an identity card with his picture and name.

“What does that tell you about where we’re at, that in 2017 in Canada, I have a piece of identification in my wallet based on my ethnicity, based on my race? Things have gotten better in a lot of ways, but there’s still a long way to go.

“The Indian Act set up Indian residential schools. For more than a hundred years, every native child was taken away from their families by the government and put in a series of church-run boarding schools. The intention was not the education of the children. It was a system of cultural genocide. The government officials of the day said the goal of the schools was to kill the Indian in the child.

“We’ve now uncovered systemic abuses in the residential schools. Thousands of children died. One scholar uncovered a national series of experiments on children in the schools. There were nutritional experiments with food additives banned for humans in Canada in the time.”

This did not end with the 19th-century. It also was his father’s story. (Mr. Kinew told it in detail in his memoir, “The Reason You Walk.”)

“This went on until the 1940s or 50s. After Nuremberg. This actually was in a period where we had the same or similar moral standards we have today.

“My dad was born in a loving family with a nice way of life. When he was seven years old, a government official took him away from his parents. He spent eight years at one of these institutions. There was very dark stuff.

“We use the term residential school survivors. Why survivor? My father shared a bunk bed with a boy who was killed in the school by an adult. My father survived.

“Most people, when they hear about this history, they say, ‘This happened because we didn’t know about it. If we had known we would have stopped it.’ But here” — he pointed to a slide on the screen — “is an interview with a principal from one of these institutions in a newspaper in the 60s. He’s talking about using starvation and physical abuse to model the behavior of children in their care.

“It was reported. It was publicly available. When there are large human rights abuses, it’s not that people don’t know about it, but too often they don’t care about it. It’s one of the things we have to be on guard for.”

After his years in the Catholic-run school, “My father came home, made his life, had an interesting career. He was a mechanic and a boxer and a politician and a university instructor.

“My dad brought with him some of that trauma, some of the pain of that experience. What does it mean that my father was raised in an institution by people who didn’t love him and in some cases wanted to hurt him? Some of the behavior he brought into the home was formed by the institutional mentality.

“A few years ago, I was talking to a Holocaust survivor in Toronto. I don’t want to draw an equivalence. I want to point out a similarity. The Holocaust survivor was talking about how, because of his experience starving in a concentration camp, he would yell at his son when he wouldn’t eat all the food on his plate.

“That was what happened to me when I was growing up, because my father went hungry at residential school.

“I told the survivor, your story hit home with me, because if I was a kid and didn’t eat every bit of the apple except for the stem, my father would get mad at me.

“The Holocaust survivor kind of joked at me: ‘You didn’t eat the stem?’

“It just goes to show how behaviors can be handed down through the generations and played out in different ways. Now that I’m a dad, my big challenge is to be a caring and compassionate father and try not to pass some of those behaviors down.”

Mr. Kinew noted a connection to the Jewish experience as he discussed some of the good news about his people’s experience. “There’s been an indigenous resurgence,” he said. “Languages are coming back. We’ve started an afterschool Ojibwe program, language immersion camps, language immersion schools. One of the models we study is the revitalization of the Hebrew language.

“We’re beginning to see some of our communities turn the corner.

He showed a slide of his wife, Dr. Lisa Monkman, sitting beside a campfire and a brightly colored teepee. “Every summer we leave the city and go live on the land like our ancestors did, to live in an extended family village,” he said. “Here you have a physician” — he shined a laser pointer on the picture of his wife — “successful by mainstream standards, financially and educationally, and also grounded in indigenous language and indigenous culture. That’s the face of our community more and more.”

Mr. Kinew said a turning point for his people was the airing of the story of the residential schools on Canadian television 20 years ago.

“People were shocked,” he said. “First came lawsuits. Survivors of residential schools launched class action lawsuits against the churches that ran the schools and the government of Canada. In order to settle that, the prime minister of Canada apologized to the survivors of the residential schools. About 80,000 were alive. He said ‘We are sorry. We were wrong. You always deserved to be who you are.’ It was a pretty remarkable movement.

“The survivors, as part of the agreement, asked for a truth and reconciliation commission. The most famous one was probably in South Africa. The idea is to have a forum to document what happened during this era. The commission traveled around the country, heard from tens of thousands of people. It’s a pretty remarkable document.”

Mr. Kinew said his father had his own act of reconciliation.

“My father had a chance to go to Vatican and meet the pope. The pope expressed that he was sorry. It kind of opened up something in my father’s life. He was still struggling to find meaning and to find healing from the pain he experienced as a boy. This opened up something for him.

“On the trip he made friends with the archbishop of Manitoba, where he lived. Then he received a terminal diagnosis of cancer. He decided he was going to make things right. He adopted the archbishop of Manitoba as his brother.”

This wasn’t an abstraction. The archbishop of Manitoba showed up at the ceremony.

“My father didn’t just say ‘You should come and learn about the culture,’ he grabbed him by the hand and brought him into one of our sacred ceremonies and showed him our way of life.”

“In our community, an adoption ceremony is a spiritual covenant, a peacemaking ceremony. If you and I are arguing, we can adopt one another and then we have to end the argument because we’re brothers.

“To me, this was a very powerful example. Here’s somebody my dad could have been mad at, could have had thoughts of revenge about. Instead of resting with the negativity, he rose above it and turned it into something positive. Instead of being mad, he embraced the man with love and said we’re going to be brothers. My father experienced some of the worst oppression of North America, and in the end of his life he was able to bring healing to himself and his community.

“I thought it was important to share that story, so I wrote that book about it.

“Even though the face of our suffering is different, there are similarities we can find across community lines. In stories of hardship and resilience, there is some fellowship that can be created.”

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