an excerpt from Nothing Will Be Different

by Tara McGowan-Ross

Tara McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi’kmaw multidisciplinary artist. She is the author of the poetry collections Girth and Scorpion Season as well as the memoir Nothing Will Be Different. She hosts the Indigenous Literatures Book Club with Drawn & Quarterly, is a critic of independent and experimental Montreal theatre with Broadway World, and writes the twice-monthly newsletter THEATRE OF CRUELTY. Find her at @girthgirl and girthgirl.ca

Excerpt from Nothing Will Be Different by Tara McGowan-Ross © 2021. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Limited.


 

October 1492–October 2011. Occupied Turtle Island.

My dad came into the café with his arms full of roses because of the Indian Act. I have to back up a bit, here, again. Bear with me.

Genocide is a term coined in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who defined it as

the destruction of nation or of an ethnic group.… Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Lemkin lost 49 relatives to the Holocaust and died in poverty in New York City. At the time of his death, he considered his work on preventing genocide to be a failure.

Years earlier, Adolf Hitler mused approvingly about the success of the genocidal project that settled the Americas. The process by which land was “cleared” —the inhabitants slaughtered or displaced to make room for European immigrants—was the template for the Nazi concept of Lebensraum. The European colonization of the Americas killed 56 million people. It’s still the largest human mortality event ever, if measured relative to the world’s total population: ten percent of the entire planet, at the time. How many prayers were sent up to God then? How many little girls, unheard?

It was the immediate, or relatively immediate, destruction of not one nation, but dozens: the Beothuk, the Koroa, the Acuera. Westo. Ababco. Calusa.

The settlement of the Americas eliminated 90 percent of the human life on my home continent. It was the immediate, or relatively immediate, destruction of not one nation, but dozens: the Beothuk, the Koroa, the Acuera. Westo. Ababco. Calusa. So many others. Those who survived posed a legal and logistical issue for the expansion of European settlements. These legal and logistical issues were compounded, for the English, by Indigenous allegiances with the French. The Royal Proclamation Act of 1763 attempted to remedy both problems. The Royal Proclamation Act was not the Indian Act—it predates it—and it set in motion a series of events that led to my dad walking into Uncommon Grounds with his arms full of roses. I really am getting there, I promise.

The Royal Proclamation Act laid down the first colonial written declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples on occupied Turtle Island, and, with it, a series of steps by which the English would appropriate the remaining Indigenous-controlled land. It also contained a bunch of stuff that really pissed the French off, but that does not have anything to do, really, with why my dad ended up in my work with his arms full of roses. It asserted that wide tracts of Appalachia be retained as Indigenous-controlled reserve, which bothered many colonists in what is now the United States, and contributed to the onset of the American Revolutionary War. That also doesn’t have anything to do with my dad, or the roses, it’s just funny.

In 1831, the Anglican ministry at the Mohawk Institute in what is now Brantford, Ontario, began to take boarding pupils, in what would come to be known as the residential schooling system, and began a 160-year legacy of the physical, psychological, cultural, and spiritual torture of children. In 1850, the euphemistically named Act for the Better Protection of the Lands and Properties of Indians in Lower Canada defined an “Indian” using a very new concept called race.

The fiction of race is quantified by percentages of blood—even though anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of biology or liquids could tell you that this is not how blood works.

Race, if you do not know, is fiction written in the late sixteenth century by the English—who are a pale group of people who live on a windswept rock in the ocean—as a justification for the murder and colonialism of the Irish—a nearly identical pale group of people who live on a nearly identical windswept rock, in the same ocean, but slightly to the left. The fiction of race is quantified by percentages of blood—even though anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of biology or liquids could tell you that this is not how blood works. Percentages of blood is then tracked and measured by breeding lines—the way we do it with unreasonably expensive dogs—as if that is what a family is.

In order to be considered an “Indian,” one must also be a member of a “body or tribe of Indians” —be recognized as a member of a community. This, at least, makes a modicum of sense: family is, after all, who you love. One was also an “Indian” if they married one, or if they were adopted by an Indigenous family. This, too, has reason. We are what loves us.

The Gradual Civilization Act came in 1857. It offered Indigenous people a bargain: get full citizenship, the right to vote, and some of the land that was recently murdered away from you if you give up your legally recognized status and the rights that came with it. This was called enfranchisement, which was also a euphemism. Only one person voluntarily enfranchised, which is also funny. This was the end of the era of voluntary enfranchisement.

The Indian Act, which contained bits and pieces of the before-mentioned acts, was signed into law in 1876. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. The Indian Act did not affect a nation—it affected dozens, the more than 50 culturally and linguistically distinct groups who survived the immediate destruction of so many others. Genocide is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups. The Indian Act followed the tribal customs of lands distant and unhappy, forcibly imposed European governance structures on Indigenous communities, forbade women from tribal politics, rendered religious ceremony and collective cultural gatherings illegal. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions.

My heart breaks for these colonizers—these lonely, wandering children, who were taught by other lonely, wandering children to look at two like kinds and see only the minor differences. They were people, sure—with agency, like we all are—but also victims of circumstance. Like we all are. Survivors, themselves, of hundreds of years of murder and persecution, from and against nearly identical groups of people worshipping the same God, from nearly indistinguishable holy places. I am getting to the roses. Hold on.


Author photo credit to Camellia Jahanshahi.


Tara McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi’kmaw multidisciplinary artist. She is the author of the poetry collections Girth and Scorpion Season as well as the memoir Nothing Will Be Different. She hosts the Indigenous Literatures Book Club with Drawn & Quarterly, is a critic of independent and experimental Montreal theatre with Broadway World, and writes the twice-monthly newsletter THEATRE OF CRUELTY. Find her at @girthgirl and girthgirl.ca

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