First published Oct 11, 2014.
(Published again today, out of order, a couple of days late for/in honor of Indigenous People’s Day)
I was born among my people on land we had lived upon since the beginning of time. I was bound to that land through my soul. I lived many, many lives there.
I knew all the trees by name. The paths through the woods had been worn deeper into the earth by my feet, over thousands of years.
I knew the place in the river where it curves around a sharp bend. The fish got trapped there. They were easy to catch. I knew the warrens of the rabbits — the entrance hidden between the roots of a large tree or under a large, moss-covered rock. I knew where to set my traps. I never went hungry. I knew every plant, nut and berry and which of them were edible, medicinal, intoxicating.
I knew every landmark; the way the silhouette of the hills cleaved the sky from every angle. I always knew how far I was from home. I could walk for days and never get lost.
Everything I had ever seen or tasted or touched or heard or smelled had been of that land. My parents were born there. My grandparents were both there, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs. I was married there. I had children there. And everything they had ever seen or tasted or touched or heard or smelled had been of that land.
It was not a paradise. Life was hard. But it was our life. We were characters in the same story as the land. Inseparable. Our histories, intertwined. To take one from the other would be to destroy both.
And then, eventually, the Strangers came. I was a grown child before I ever saw one with my own eyes. But slowly, like stalking a deer, they drew closer in increments so small we barely noticed.
Soon there were borders which were not allowed to cross; where we were not allowed to hunt. They would not bother us as long as we stayed on our side. But they kept pressing forward, encircling us, drawing the noose tighter. We were being strangled but we were too small a group to put up much of a fight.
Eventually, they took us all to a place far, far away. There were many different people there, speaking languages I did not understand. It seemed there were many who did not understand each other.
I did not understand this land. It was dry and dusty. There were no forests. There were no streams or rivers anywhere. There were no hills. Just ugly, flat, colorless dust for as far as my eyes could see. I hated it instantly. I was resentful and angry. I had been forcibly removed from my past. I no longer felt whole. I knew as long as I lived there I never would.
Some tried to live outside our forced settlement, but it was nearly impossible to survive. It was a world so different, so strange from the ones we had known. We had no skills; did not understand their customs or their ways. At least within the settlement, we were with others in the same predicament. For the benefit of all, each People tried to put aside their ancestral differences with others, so we might all work as one.
The elders knew immediately this would be the end of all of us. In order to survive, it would be necessary to give up some of our past identity and forge a new identity. If we were unwilling to do that, if we insisted on clinging to the old ways, if we wasted our energy to getting back to the old lands which no longer existed as we once knew them, we would have been too divided and too weak to survive in the face of the Strangers. We needed a single, strong, united voice.
Positions of power went to those from warrior Peoples. My People were small in number and not known for their bravery against the Strangers. It was natural that we all put our faith in the mightiest warriors of all.
But, in the end, none of it did any good. Our weapons and tactics were ultimately useless against them.
The old ways are gone. Some rituals and stories remain of course, but now, disconnected from the land, they no longer make sense. The food and methods of cooking are lost, because we could not find what we needed in our new land. We lost our cures, our intoxicants, our aphrodisiacs.
We survived, but we did not thrive.
It had always been the duty of all elders to teach the young ones their People’s history, traditions, language, culture and skills. But now, what did it matter? Many elders realized this knowledge was not useful for the new world. We needed to learn a common language so we could communicate with other People. We needed to learn new skills for new land with new rules. What was the point of passing on valuable information such as the best place in the river to catch fish, or the best place to set a trap for rabbit, when that river and that mossy rock were half a continent away? (Nobody knew exactly how far, but certainly a walk of many moons.)
There was no going back. The elders were without hope. Most, like myself, who remembered the land eventually died lost and heartbroken, with wounds to our souls that never healed.
The younger ones took to changes more readily, more willingly. For them, it was an adventure. They didn’t have such long memories.
They had fewer psychic wounds but they also grew up without traditions and stories that bound them to their spiritual past, without the reassuring knowledge that they stood upon the land upon which they were born and to which they belonged.
They had no ambition for anything for what could they aspire to?
Some took on the ways of the Strangers. I did not blame them. They needed something to fill the huge gaping voids inside themselves.
If the old stories don’t work, find new ones. So they discovered Jesus. They learned to read and write and count many things. They learned the ways of the Strangers so they could interact with them and perhaps find some advantage.
But even with this, they were not accepted outside.
And so, all the Peoples are not really People at all anymore. They are the children of People and Strangers. It is impossible to be anything else. They live in two worlds and will never again be whole.
I am grateful that many still have pride in who they are, in who we were. It is good to know that the People still endure.