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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Roberta Cory’s Review of Sylvia McAdam’s “Nationhood Interupted”

Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nehiyaw Legal Systems by Sylvia McAdam (saysewahum).

Book review – Roberta Cory
The European colonizers of Turtle Island made the assumption that the inhabitants were savages and had no culture. Using their own culture as a yardstick, they saw lack of a written language, no property rights for land, subsistence hunting and gathering, and ignorance of Christianity as primitive and set about imposing European values and laws onto the original inhabitants. But what they did not know, because they did not care to find out, was that there already existed a very complicated culture which functioned very well if left alone. 
Sylvia McAdam shares her Cree (nihiyaw) culture and legal system with us in this book. Her main topics are language, protocol, oral history, types of relationships and the breaking of laws governing these relationships, gender, and right mind. 
Treaty 6 was created under these nihiyaw laws. The understanding of the nihiyaw was based upon the only system they knew, their own, and the meaning of their own words in the context of the treaty. Therefore, the English words and interpretation of Treaty 6 are not binding. The Nihiyaw see all words as imbedded in a matrix of relationships. Language is active. It is a dynamic world of responsibilities and obligations so that both parties to a treaty or agreement enter into it with a clean conscience, a positive attitude, and trust. For the Nihiyaw, the Creator made everything to live in a positive relationship. Everything was in ecological balance in the physical world, and in social balance in the human world. They thought of each type of creature or plant as a nation and nations do not touch or hurt one another. 
Their language is nuanced. Pastahowin means to go beyond or over. For us it means breaking a law against another human being. This can happen through an act, through omission, or by talk. Pastamowin is what someone said which lead to an undesirable happening. Words have power and are a gift from the Creator. Only humans were given the power of language. Ways of committing pastamowin are threats, gossip, profanity, and boastfulness. Words have power because once you say them they have a life of their own. Ohcinewin is breaking a law against anything other than a human being. This means any human activity that has a negative impact upon the environment. Torturing an animal, polluting the land, overharvesting of resources, hunting laws that are broken are all examples of Ohcinewin.
The Earth is female and the Clan mothers have a great connection to Mother Earth. The sweet grass is her hair and when they braid it they are braiding the hair of their mother. When a law is broken, the legal council is composed of the Clan mothers. Because they have known the person since even before they were born (the pregnant mother is considered to be bringing a soulfire from the Creator into the human world), and have watched the child grow and develop character, they understand how to best treat the breaking of a law. The treaties that speak of hunting and fishing rights are patriarchal and do not acknowledge the power held by the women of the clan. Women were left out of the treaties.
Some of the early Jesuit priests observed that there was almost no crime. Every child was born into responsibilities and relationships to others and was taught continually by their parents. They were born into a world that is meaningful. Those meanings were shared by all others in the clan. Each child was nurtured in right living. When wrong doing happened, such as harvesting too much of a plant species, or trapping a beaver and hurting it, or not sharing the bounty with others, ceremonies for apologizing and setting things right must take place. 
Europeans only honoured written treaties. But the nihiyaw had an oral tradition and history. Certain children were raised to remember and repeat what was said. Europeans had to be very careful in all negotiations. It is reported that a European could hardly believe that what he had said two years ago, at a treaty meeting, was repeated word for word by the Chief who was involved in the negotiations. 
When I read how hard the nihiyaw people tried in every aspect of their living to do the right thing and to live within the social compact with other humans and with all members of creation, from smudging and going to a clean and quiet place before doing something important, to making it right after breaking a law, I understood that if there was a higher or more advanced civilization when Treaty 6 was made, it was the nihiyaw and not the Europeans.
Roberta Cory

Book Review by Roberta Cory: “How Democracies Die”, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Without outside interference, my brain has been comparing and contrasting ideas regarding the ascendency of the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, the culpability of Martin Heidegger* and the fragility of Democracy. I ask, “Can we understand the historical times we live in, and can we act collectively in a positive way to ensure that truth (what is) is debated and not covered up?” 
Authors Levitsky and Ziblatt (L and Z) take a look at democracies around the world that have died. Although some have died from a military coup, others have gradually grown more and more authoritarian. These are the cases that are compared with the situation in the United States today under the Trump presidency. And they will sound familiar to Canadians who are just one election removed from the government of Stephen Harper. 
The first idea these authors put forward is that there is an unwritten understanding between citizens in a democracy of a larger belief system that cannot be found in the constitution or in the law books. This involves a commitment to dialogue and compromise in order to prevent totalitarianism from happening. In the United States it is called a system of checks and balances. The constitution does not list every single situation that is conceivable and gives each branch of the government (the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branch) considerable power. But U.S. presidents have not in the past (save the administration of FDR) used the power of veto, the power to declare war, the power to stack the court, to the extent that they could, because of their belief in the balance of the three branches of government. The Senate has the power of advice and consent. But they have generally confirmed the appointments to the Supreme Court if they were qualified, and have not politicized the judicial. The House and Senate could, if they wished, hold a president hostage by not authorizing funds for programs. But, until recently, this has not happened. The Congress can filibuster to prevent action on a bill, but this negative power has in the past been rarely used. The Constitution does not say how many positions there are on the Supreme Court. Several times in the past presidents have added or subtracted judges but not with overt political intent. Impeachment has not been used in a casual manner and was not intended to be used, since it requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which means it must to some extent be bi-partisan. The unwritten understanding, the cement that holds a democracy together, is imbedded in the “robust norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.” Three cases that have challenged America’s democratic institutions are the presidency of FDR, McCarthyism, and the Nixon administration. But, in those cases, the U.S. did not go “off the rails.” “Politicians from both parties – and often, society as a whole – pushed back against violations that might have threatened democracy.” 
In the second half of this book, authors L and Z point to three moves by U.S. governments that are slipping toward an authoritarian regime. 
The first move is “Capturing the Referees.” Not all Republicans, although they may vote for the leader of their party, support all the positions and actions of their representative. Democracy depends upon dialogue within a party. If some of the party faithful are censored, threatened or coerced, democracy has failed. The press has always taken a critical position, more so when the government is unpopular, and less so when it has a high level of support from the people. But the integrity of journalism itself has not been questioned to the extent that it is today. The term “Fake News” undermines the confidence of the public in their ability to make decisions or even argue a position. Bombastic language, lies, generalities and abstractions instead of facts, and the threat of cyberwarfare neutralize the press and the media. 
The second move is “Sidelining Players.” This involves stricter voter identification laws based upon the false claim that voter fraud was widespread in the United States. In this situation, in effect the imposition of a “modern day poll tax,” poor voters of colour, recent citizens, and rural voters were discouraged from voting at all or were turned away at the voting booth. President Trump’s claim that voter fraud denied him votes (in states that Hilary Clinton won) undermines the public faith in the electoral process. 
The third move is “Changing the Rules” or tipping the playing field. For example, gerrymandering of Congressional districts is used to make sure the outcome of an election will be to a particular party’s advantage. The appointment of the president’s family to high positions in the government, where they are able to read and act on classified material and to act with the authority of the president, is tantamount to creating a dynasty. The power of the NRA is also covered in this book, prior to the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In supporting the NRA, the government is encouraging a citizen militia that may prove useful to it at some future date.
Here I will add my personal opinion: that conspiracy theories, whether in spy novels, 911 critics, or Bilderberg narratives, foster fearfulness. If the fabric of democracy is really based upon “robust norms of mutual toleration and forbearance,” then mistrust of other citizens is the acid that will dissolve it. There is a general fear that democracies are in decline all over the world. The authors show that this is not true, but if it is believed to be true, then that belief will weaken our resolve to protect democracy from totalitarianism. 
The last chapter of this book is entitled “Saving Democracy.” The authors point to the 1960s and 1970s, when true racial equality was finally fought for (repressive laws and attitudes having become the norm in various forms after the Civil War). In their opinion, people fearing loss of white supremacy flocked to the Republican party. This increasing polarization is what threatens Democracy; the authors fear that a cultural “war” will rip the country in two. Instead, they plea for cross cultural alliances and compromise, for the moment, on some fronts in order to push hard on other fronts. I feel the sense of danger that these authors are talking about, and I have to support their plea: that we keep our eye on the big picture, that freedom to speak our truths is something we all hold as precious, and that we cannot afford to let that die. The idea of Democracy is the glue that can hold us together. 
Roberta Cory

*Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century and the motivation for Hannah Arendt’s work, postmodern thought, feminist thought, and deconstruction. In Heidegger’s Germany of 1933, suppression of alternative “truths” (including firing of professors, performing book burnings, issuing propaganda and using brain washing techniques, and encouraging conspiracy theories) and persecution of Jews, gypsies, LGBT groups, Catholics, Quakers, and the physically and mentally “abnormal” gave the green light for extremism and the darkest forces of human nature to actualize themselves. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Book Review – Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard

Roberta Cory 

Review – Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard


Anyone who reads a review of a book should take into consideration the subjectivity of the reviewer (not deliberate bias, but for sure the background experiences, gender, and political position the reviewer comes from).  Short bio then: I am a synthetic thinker between the biological sciences, continental philosophy, and art/anthropology. As a female, a synthetic thinker, and an intellectual, I grew up alienated from my social circumstances. I have great empathy for righteous rage.


Red Skins, White Masks begins as an academic piece, covering the history of the subject of racial alienation and victimhood. It acknowledges the Hegelian dialectic of confrontation between the subject and the object (either/or thinking), French existentialism, colonialism, and the psychology of the oppressed. Coulthard follows the position of Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, Marxist philosopher, and freedom fighter in the Algerian war for independence from France in two ways. First, by analysis of the term “recognition.” Second, in discussion of the term “resentment.”


In agreement with Fanon, Couthard makes the case that, in a master/slave, or colonist/colonized power imbalance, asking for recognition means that the terms and understanding of relationship are defined by the giver, and enforced by the giver, the party in power. But it goes deeper than that, since the mind of the colonized is under control of the colonizer. That is what is meant by the recent call to “decolonize your mind.” Whatever recognition is granted by the colonizer, the language, and culture, (the hegemony), of the party in power remains. In addition, the skin of the colonized is always an object of difference and speaks a history of victimhood.


“Resentiment,” from Nietzche, is the psychological position of wanting what those in power have, including wishing to have their skin, and to blend in. This is not a healthy position, and the only way to overcome it is to turn it around. Fanon affirms “violence” as the needed therapeutic in overthrowing the power of the hegemony. All revolutions for freedom and independence are violent. But there is a violence that stops short of revolution, when the property, the infrastructure, and the symbols of the oppressor are rendered impotent. When treaties, Acts, Rights, legislation, and determinates of status (written by the colonizing powers) are signed but not enforced (in other words, there is no mutual good intent between the signees) then the only way forward is “direct action.” 


First Nations are of two minds. The elected Council and Chiefs have not decolonized their minds. They want in on the capitalist game. They want to own the land which was taken away, in order to profit from resource exploitation. 


Coulthard devotes the last part of his book to the “spiritual” traditions which are still available, as a different relationship of Indigenous people to their land, which is that of sustainability. In a hunter, gatherer culture, humans are on an equal and not superior plane with all of the life and life sustaining systems in which they are imbedded. The understanding of a mutual, balanced, and not exploitive relationship with the earth is shared by deep ecologists, their potential allies in this last struggle to save the habitability of the planet. The issue of tradition is a gnarly one – we see it contested in the recent Supreme Court nominee hearings in the United States where a “pure, true way” of thinking from the writers of the U.S. Constitution is appealed to when settling ethical issues in the present reality. Many historians have shown that there is no “garden of Eden” to go back to and recreate. But within the reality of current issues (climate change) the capitalist paradigm of exploitation and resultant inequality does not hold and indigenous ways of dialogue, listening, respecting, and holding sacred are needed.


In his Conclusion, Coulthard says, “…the efficacy of Indigenous resurgence hinges on its ability to address the interrelated systems of dispossession that shape Indigenous peoples’ experiences in both urban and land-based settings.”  In earlier chapters he had drawn a distinction between time based and space based relationships. Colonial thinking is time based; ownership is determined by historical documents. Indigenous thinking is space based, rooted in the mutual relationship of the human animal to the land. For example, in colonial thinking, water rights belong to the person who owns the deed to the property. In Indigenous thinking, water, as it is essential to all life, is shared and protected as drinkable for all future generations. Mi’Kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence is credited for her work on the necessity to repeal the “colonial divisions” which separate Native individuals from their land and their identities, and to work towards relationships of mutual empowerment. This implies traditional teaching and healing within the urban environment, access to the Native land and the Indigenous people still living on it, economic and political aid from urban Indigenous people who are in a position to give it, and a curb on gentrification of Indigenous low income spaces in the city. 


Dory Nason, Anishinaabe feminist, is the second woman Coulthard credits with taking on the issue of colonial divisions, in this case perpetuated between genders in her work towards Indigenous resurgence. Nason shows that the violence done through the residential schools, the Indian Act, and other state institutions has resulted in both material and symbolic misogyny. Yet with Idle No More and subsequent resistant actions women have taken the lead. The strength of women, their righteous anger, and their encompassing love, needs recognition from within the Native male community to heal the divisions created by the colonizers. 


One can read this book as relevant to all minority cultures oppressed and divided by their colonizers to render them either useful as serfs, neutralized by infra-conflicts, or terrorized by bullying. As a woman, all of the above pertains to me and my sisters. We have been useful as property; sex partners, mothers, caregivers, and domestic or field servants, we have squabbled amongst ourselves over degrees of oppression or privilege, over who is a true “female” (under the hegemony of dualism), and over “identities,” and we have been bullied by our fathers, our husbands, our bosses, and our firstborn males. So, I for one have great empathy for the situation this book tackles. In the spirit of inclusion and intersectionality, I have to recommend a book that not only takes on a most relevant topic, but, is universal in its message. 


Roberta Cory