Storying the Indigenous Experience

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Samantha Baran’s Medium bog.

In their essay “Storying the Prairie West”, Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt elucidate Canada’s history of asserting sovereignty over Indigenous land in the prairies by way of storying the landscape. They explain how “This story of peaceful settlement and development either highlights Indigenous consent to the theft of our land and cession of our political authority, or glosses over it under the guise of partnership and nation-building” (Starblanket and Hunt 29). Although the Canadian government acknowledged the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples in documents like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the act of storying the Indigenous experience is still prevalent. In numerous news articles that emerge from conflicts between companies and Indigenous peoples in the prairies, Indigenous peoples continue to be shaped as the Other. Starblanket and Hunt explain how “… this national identity is an imaginary construct” (Starblanket and Hunt 30); and what emerges from news and articles that bait Indigenous peoples against capitalistic enterprises and the nation itself is the “ ‘murderable Indian’ ” (Starblanket and Hunt 31). Indigenous identity, and in instances the Indigenous body, is murdered by way of storying the Indigenous experience to reflect an inherent Indigenous opposition to settler-colonial authority. Storying, thus, is not a past act of destruction to the Indigenous narrative but persists in the present.

The capitalistic goals of companies and the federal government are largely responsible for the act of present-day storying of the Indigenous experience. Thanks to the free press, the dichotic representation of Indigenous peoples’ experience is known. Returning to Starblanket and Hunt’s “ ‘murderable Indian’ ”, the dichotomy of the Indigenous experience in the media works by way of either murdering, or eliminating, Indigenous representation altogether or misusing Indigenous identity to portray Indigenous peoples as an opposing faction to capitalistic enterprises. In early examples of storying the prairies, Starblanket and Hunt state how “Early immigration materials described the prairie west as a vast, unoccupied, fertile hinterland with little, if any, mention of Indigenous populations” (Starblanket and Hunt 33). Canada’s historical record demonstrates an omission of Indigeneity despite Canada’s history of enterprises like the fur-trade that created a relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Already storying was used to murder Indigenous identity to validate the land for colonialism and capitalism.

The Canadian government and corporations have a history of manipulating Indigenous identity into resembling an opposing faction inhabiting a space reserved for Canadians. Legislation historically antagonized Indigenous peoples by legally making them an Other who is at the mercy of Canadian sovereignty:

Starting in the 1820s, colonial administrators undertook many initiatives aimed at “civilizing” First Nations. One of the first such pieces of legislation was the Crown Lands Protection Act, passed in 1839. This Act made the government the guardian of all Crown lands, including Indian Reserve lands. The Indian Act of 1876 was a consolidation of previous regulations pertaining to First Nations. The Act gave greater authority to the federal Department of Indian Affairs.

Canadian authority segregated Indigenous peoples from stolen, colonial land by way of the reserve system. Reserves were not a trading of space, but instead were a system created to isolate Indigenous peoples from their original land within a space governed by settler-colonial authority. Indigenous peoples are imprisoned on their own land that was stolen by colonists who now continue to assert sovereignty over Indigenous space by way of the reserve system. Indigenous peoples are segregated and framed as the Other by being forced into existing within a space legislated as a part of Canadian space that is lent to them. Starblanket and Hunt explain: “Once [the land] ‘belonged’ to settler farmers, Indigenous peoples could be framed as criminals or … as intruders …” (Starblanket and Hunt 38).

Present-day capitalism is antagonistic to Indigeneity and garners justification and pecuniary success by antagonizing Indigenous peoples to the national identity. Capitalism is able to justify the murder of the Indigenous identity and body by positioning Indigenous peoples as an Other who is in opposition to capitalistic goals that are framed as a part of a national identity and endeavour. Starblanket and Hunt note this history: “Some ads also promised specific opportunities, such as the proximity to coal fields or to the railway, implying easy accessibility to urban centers and distant markets … and to provide a market for the manufacturers of eastern and central Canada” (Starblanket and Hunt 35–36). Today, capitalism continues to dominate Indigenous space and frames Indigenous opposition as an opposition to Canadian progress.

A present-day example is the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline. Again, a dichotomy exists between how the government and corporations frame the narrative of the pipeline versus how the free press articulates Indigenous experience with the pipeline. On the government website, an explanation of the project is articulated. The page textually and visually explains the route, purpose, and capabilities of the pipeline. However, the page does not explain the drawbacks of the pipeline for neither Indigenous peoples or the environment. In a news article on the pipeline, the author notes how the pipeline would pass through numerous Indigenous territories both in Canada and the United States. National Chief Perry Bellegrade of the Assembly of First Nations stated after the pipeline’s approval: “This is an important moment to remind Canadians that First Nations hold inherent rights and treaty rights recognized in Canada’s Constitution”. A Dene elder also mentioned how the pipeline will pollute the rivers, especially the Mackenzie River, and pollute the air. Despite the Canadian government’s legislation that gave Indigenous peoples rights in an effort to eliminate Indigenous identity and autonomy, the segregated space of Indigenous peoples is still subject to Canadian will. A second colonialism occurs because settler-colonial capitalistic goals are infiltrating Indigenous space once again. Ironically, the infiltration of this segregated space is like a double-colonial act: the Canadian government enacts a second colonialism on Indigenous space for pecuniary gain while simultaneously infiltrating and exploiting the land that is legally their own.

Storying issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline by murdering Indigenous existence within these enterprises parallels the storying historically done by the government in advertisements for immigration to the prairies referenced by Starblanket and Hunt. Indigenous peoples are storied into becoming the Other: Indigenous peoples are framed as intruders on Canadian land whose participation must be eliminated in order to preserve Canadianism. By historically and presently storying Indigeneity into the antagonistic Other, the national identity of Canada falsely claims the Indigenous body and space as Canadian land.

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