A business deal or a sacred promise?
The handshake depicted on this Treaty 6 medal is understood by nêhiyawak to symbolize asotamâkêwin – a sacred promise to live together in the spirit of good relations.
In September 1874, Treaty Commissioners representing Queen Victoria traveled to Fort Qu’Appelle to negotiate the terms of a sacred promise to live in peace and friendship with nehiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda peoples of the region that came to be known as Treaty 4. Prior to this meeting, the Indigenous leaders had learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold their lands to the Dominion of Canada without their consultation or consent. Thus, when the Treaty Commissioners sought to initiate negotiations, the leaders declined to discuss the Treaty. Instead, an Anihšināpēk spokesman named Otahaoman explained with the help of a translator that the assembled peoples felt that there was “something in the way” of their ability to discuss the terms of the Treaty in good faith (Morris, 2014, pp. 97–98).
It took several days of discussion for the Queen’s representatives to comprehend the concerns expressed by Otahaoman. The people were questioning the sincerity of these Treaty negotiations because they knew that the Government of Canada had already made a side deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purchase of their lands. The view expressed by Otahaoman was that these side dealings undermined the integrity of the Government’s Treaty intentions. Through the translator, Otahaoman clearly articulated the view that the Hudson’s Bay Company only had the permission of Indigenous peoples to conduct trade. They did not have the right to claim ownership over any land: “The Indians want the Company to keep at their post and nothing beyond. After that is signed they will talk about something else” (Morris, 2014, p. 110). Despite these misunderstandings, as well as notable disagreement among the various Indigenous groups in attendance, the terms of Treaty 4 were eventually ratified.
I begin with this story to draw attention to the persistence of Canadian colonial culture as “something in the way” of efforts to repair Indigenous-Canadian relations. The critical observation that Otahaoman articulated in 1874 is still a very relevant and unsettling problem today. In the wake of the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educational jurisdictions and institutions across Canada have rushed to respond to the Calls through the implementation of various policies and program initiatives. However, the rush to Reconciliation facilitates an active disregard of the Truth of colonial ideologies and structures that continue to block possibilities for the emergence of healthy and balanced Indigenous-Canadian relations in Canada. Before Reconciliation can even be considered as a possibility, a broad social, cultural, and educational reckoning process must be undertaken that focuses on unlearning colonialism. Colonial ideologies remain mostly uninterrogated in Canadian educational contexts and continue to be “in the way” of meaningful Indigenous-Canadian relational renewal. Such relational renewal is only possible if colonialism is unlearned.
Colonial ideologies have got “in the way” of schooling practices in the sense that prevailing curricular and pedagogical approaches perpetuate colonial worldview. The founding principle of colonialism is relationship denial1 and the centuries-long predominance of this principle has resulted in the creation of educational practices that perpetuate relationship denial in mostly subtle and unquestioned ways. One prominent form of relationship denial is evident in the ways in which the mental aspect of a human being is considered more important than the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects. The possibility for holistic unity and balance is denied when the different aspects of a human being are increasingly fragmented and disassociated as a person becomes educated. The teachings of relationship denial can also be seen in the ways in which human beings are taught to believe that their needs are always more important than the needs of other forms of life. They are also evident in the ways in which students are taught to deny relationships that they have with people who do not look like them, speak like them, or pray like them. When someone is educated to accept relationship denial as a way of being in the world, it becomes part of how they are as a human being – how they live – and this acceptance has a very distinctive bearing on how they understand knowledge and knowing.
Such practices are reflective of the “Western code” – the Enlightenment-based knowledge paradigm that is presented as possessing all the answers to any important questions that could be asked by anyone, anywhere in the world. It is important to state that Western conceptions of knowledge and knowing have provided many benefits. However, belief in the veracity of those understandings becomes a form of violence when they are prescribed as the only way to be a successful human being. Wynter (1992), for example, has argued that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Turtle Island instigated a centuries-long process wherein a universalized model of the human being was imposed on people around the world. She asserts that this particular advancement of colonial power has served to “absolutize the behavioural norms encoded in our present culture-specific conception of being human, allowing it to be posited as if it were the universal of the human species” (Wynter, 1992, pp. 42-43). The assertion of this colonial power is carried out in the name of Progress.2 Formal schooling eventually became a primary means by which those with power could discipline the citizenry to conform to this model of the human being and this notion of Progress. As I see it, this has resulted in the predominance of curricular and pedagogical approaches that perpetuate these universalized behavioural norms by persistently presenting knowledge and knowing according to the rubric of relationship denial.
The complex task of unlearning colonial forms of relationship denial does require learning more about colonial worldview and the ways in which the cultural assumptions of that worldview deeply inform the structure and character of the common-sense conventions of educational practices. However, it cannot only rely on learning about such things in an informational way. To do so is to assume that relationship denial is really just an intellectual problem and that unlearning can be accomplished via a detailed three-hour lecture with accompanying PowerPoint slides.
The difficult truth is that colonial forms of relationship denial are much more than just intellectual problems. Human beings who accept colonial worldview as natural, normal, and common sense come to embody colonial forms of relationship denial that teach them to divide the world. The field of education has become so fully informed by the assumed correctness of colonial worldview that it has become difficult to take seriously other knowledge systems or ways of being human. However, this struggle to honour other knowledge systems or ways of being is implicated in the deepest difficulties faced today in trying to live in less damaging, divisive, and ecologically destructive ways. It is clear to me that the acceptance of relationship denial as the natural cognitive habit of successful human beings undermines the ability to respond to these complex challenges in dynamic ways. Thus, an urgent educational challenge facing educators today involves:
- first decentring, denaturalizing, and unlearning colonial logics of relationship denial as curricular and pedagogical common sense, and
- second, honouring other ways to know and be.
As a teacher educator struggling to address this challenge, I draw significant guidance and inspiration from Indigenous wisdom teachings of kinship relationality. These wisdom teachings emphasize how human beings are at their best when they recognize themselves as enmeshed in networks of human and more-than-human relationships that enable life and living. For example, in nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language), a foundational wisdom concept that is central to nêhiyaw (Cree) worldview is wâhkôhtowin. Translated into English, wâhkôhtowin is generally understood to refer to kinship. In a practical way, wâhkôhtowin describes ethical guidelines regarding how you are related to your kin and how to conduct yourself as a good relative. Following those guidelines teaches one how to relate to human relatives and interact with them in accordance with traditional kinship teachings. Importantly, however, wâhkôhtowin is also extended to include more-than-human kinship relations. The nêhiyaw worldview emphasizes honouring the ancient kinship relationships that humans have with all other forms of life that inhabit their traditional territories. This emphasis teaches human beings to understand themselves as fully enmeshed in networks of relationships that support and enable their life and living. Métis Elder Maria Campbell (2007) eloquently addresses wâhkôhtowin enmeshment:
“And our teachings taught us that all of creation is related and inter-connected to all things within it.
Wahkotowin meant honoring and respecting those relationships. They are our stories, songs, ceremonies, and dances that taught us from birth to death our responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to each other. Human to human, human to plants, human to animals, to the water and especially to the earth. And in turn all of creation had responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to us” (p. 5).
Thus, following the relational kinship wisdom of wâhkôhtowin, human beings are called to repeatedly acknowledge and honour the sun, the moon, the sky, the land, the wind, the water, the animals, and the trees (just to name a few), as quite literally our kinship relations. Humans are fully reliant on these entities for survival and so the wise person works to ensure that those more-than-human relatives are healthy and consistently honoured. Cradled within this kinship teaching is an understanding that healthy human-to-human relations depend upon and flow from healthy relations with the more-than-human. They cannot be separated out.
These wisdom teachings of wâhkôhtowin enmeshment and kinship relationality are also central to the spirit and intent of the so-called Numbered Treaties negotiated between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871–1921. Although I cannot claim expertise in the details of each individual Treaty, I can state that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as sacred adoption ceremonies through which they agreed to live in peaceful coexistence with their newcomer relatives. This means that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as a formal commitment to welcome newcomers into their kinship networks, share land and resources with them, and work together with them as relatives for mutual benefit. In this sense, the Numbered Treaties can be understood as expressions of the wâhkôhtowin imagination – human and more-than-human kinship interconnectivities.
However, such kinship interconnectivities are not a central part of how most Canadians understand the Numbered Treaties. In accordance with the colonial emphasis on relationship denial, Treaties have been a massive curricular omission in Canadian education systems. If Canadians have learned anything of Treaties in their formal schooling experiences, it usually comes in the form of historical background information that characterizes Treaties as business deals through which Indigenous peoples surrendered their lands and received gifts and certain rights in return. So, tragically, the possibility that the Numbered Treaties could actually honour the layered complexities of kinship relationality and its constant renewal is undermined by ongoing institutional and societal dedication to relationship denial.
It is my view that Treaties can be a significant source of inspiration in addressing the two educational challenges mentioned previously: unlearning colonialism and honouring other ways to know and be. The handshake depicted on the Treaty medal guides me to work together with others in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. Specific to Treaty 6, the shaking of hands is understood to signify ka-miyo-wîcêhtoyahk (for us to get along well), ka-wîtaskîhtoyahk (for us to live as Nations), ka-wîtaskêhtoyahk (for us to share the land and live as good neighbours), and ka-miyo-ohpikihitoyahk (for us to raise each other’s children well). These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from living together in the spirit of good relations. Indeed, Treaty teachings appear to provide the much-needed antidote to colonial logics of relationship denial and assist in the educational challenge to unlearn. Importantly, however, the wâhkôhtowin imagination also offers a significant opportunity to engage with other ways of knowing and being by consistently reminding us of our enmeshment within more-than-human kinship connectivities.
What expressions of knowledge and knowing flow from an education that emphasizes kinship connectivities and relational renewal? What kind of human being emerges from such educational experiences? These are questions without clear answers. However, they are also questions that educators must begin to carefully consider as part of the much larger struggle to unlearn colonialism. It is clear to me that the human ability to honour other ways to know and be depends on the willingness to return to the ancient wisdom teachings of kinship relationality that are clearly emphasized in Treaty teachings.
Photo: courtesy Dwayne Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Suggested Resources to Learn More
- Yunkaporta, T. (2019). Sand talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world. Text Publishing.
- Asch, M., Borrows, J., & Tully, J. (Eds.). (2018). Resurgence and reconciliation: Indigenous-settler relations and earth teachings. University of Toronto Press.
- Sheridan, J., & Longboat, R. H. C. T. S. D. (2006). The Haudenosaunee imagination and the ecology of the sacred. Space and Culture, 9(4), 365–381.
- Donald, D. (2021). We need a new story: Walking and the wâhkôhtowin imagination. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 18(2), 53–63.
- Tynan, L. (2021). What is relationality? Indigenous knowledges, practices and responsibilities with kin. cultural geographies, 28(4), 597–610.
- Starblanket, G., & Stark, H. K. (2019). Towards a relational paradigm − Four points for consideration: Knowledge, gender, land, and modernity. In M. Asch, J. Borrows, & J. Tully (Eds.), Resurgence and Reconciliation (pp. 175–208). University of Toronto Press.
- Asch, M. (2014). On being here to stay: Treaties and Aboriginal rights in Canada. University of Toronto Press.
- Kovach, M. (2013). Treaties, truths and transgressive pedagogies: Re-imagining Indigenous presence in the classroom. Socialist Studies/Études socialistes.
Campbell, M. (2007, November). We need to return to the principles of Wahkotowin. Eagle Feather News, 10(11), 5. www.eaglefeathernews.com/quadrant/media//pastIssues/November_2007.pdf
Donald, D. (2019) Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum. In H. Tomlinson-Jahnke, S. Styres, S. Lille, & D. Zinga (Eds.), Indigenous education: New directions in theory and practice (pp. 103–125). University of Alberta Press.
Morris, A. (2014). The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories: Including the negotiations on which they are based, and other information relating thereto. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1980). History of the idea of progress. Transaction.
Wynter, S. (1995). 1492: A new world view. In V. L. Hyatt & R. Nettleford (Eds.), Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view (pp. 5–57). Smithsonian.
1 I use this phrase to draw attention to the ways in which the institutional and socio-cultural practice of dividing the world according to colonial worldview has trained Canadians to disregard Indigenous peoples as fellow human beings and thus deny relationships with them. This disregard maintains unethical relationships and promotes the development of cognitive blockages (psychoses) that undermine the possibility for improved Indigenous-Canadian relations. The psychosis of relationship denial results from a decades-long curricular project dedicated to the telling of a Canadian national narrative that has largely excluded the memories and experiences of Indigenous peoples. A major assertion that stems from this relational psychosis is that Indigenous peoples do not belong in Canada and are therefore out of place in their own traditional territories. This relational psychosis is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian colonial culture that must be unlearned.
2 I choose to capitalize this term to denote its mythological prominence within settler colonial societies like Canada. This notion of Progress has grown out of the colonial experience and is predicated on the pursuit of unfettered economic growth and material prosperity stemming from faith in market capitalism. For more on this see Donald (2019) and Nisbet (1980).