Acknowledgment, reconciliation and reckoning: are we experiencing an ‘Indigenous moment’?

Or is it all much less than meets the eye?

The jaded second view was how Rick Monture reacted in 2014, when the Six Nations resident and Indigenous Studies professor at McMaster University was asked to help craft a territorial acknowledgment for the school.

"I quietly sort of didn't answer back," he says. "I didn't want it to be a hollow thing that gives people the sense that all is forgiven, and I told them as much."

He knew they weren't looking for him to offer wording that suggested land be given back, moreover the history is complex.

"How far back do you go? You can't capture who lived here in a sentence or two."

His position was borne out recently, when historical references in the City of Hamilton's statement were debated in the Spectator, with Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, and Chief Ava Hill of Six Nations, offering competing views over who should be acknowledged as "the treaty peoples of these lands."

But the sentiment in the acknowledgments is clear: that this land, all of it, was, and is, the homeland of natives dating back perhaps 12,000 years before European settlers arrived.

Offering public territorial acknowledgments was not, as is commonly assumed, one of the 94 "Calls to Action" issued in 2015 after eight-years and $72-million work from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Land acknowledgment gained attention at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when it was made a centrepiece of the opening ceremonies — a concession to B.C. natives who vigorously opposed hosting the games on "unceded" land where treaties were never signed ("No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.")

The Vancouver Olympics was the first time the International Olympic Committee recognized Indigenous people as official host partners.

That same year the Canadian Association of University Teachers created an Indigenous peoples working group and developed a guide for land acknowledgment statements tailored to every university in the country: from acknowledging the Beothuk and Mi'kmaq peoples in Newfoundland, to the "unceded traditional territory" of the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island.

The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League got in on the campaign: at the start of the 2016 season they began offering acknowledgments in their arenas before the national anthem.

(Don't expect to see such developments in the U.S., where territorial acknowledgments offered from nonindigenous people do not happen, says Shannon Keller O'Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. She adds that "public education about American Indian people is quite minimal in schools."

From an Indigenous perspective, the concept of territorial acknowledgment is one that has always been practised among First Nations peoples. It happened at ceremonies, or when one tribal member would light a small fire on the outskirts of territory he was visiting, wait for someone to meet him, smoke a peace pipe, acknowledge whose land it was, discuss intentions.

"It's an Indigenous protocol, we've always done that," says Shylo Elmayan, who directs the City of Hamilton's urban Indigenous strategy. "But now everyone is noticing it because nonindigenous organizations are saying it."

Monture eventually came around and helped draft McMaster's statement. Still, Monture, who in interviews alternately conveys hope and despair, is not all-in.

"I wouldn't call them an empty gesture, but there is no teeth. Politicians and university presidents can give the statement, and it raises awareness in the listener a bit, but doesn't mention how the land was taken way. It's just, 'this is the land of people who lived here,' and they stop … But I understand the value of the gesture toward real change."

For her part, Six Nations band council Chief Ava Hill believes acknowledgments are one sign of a powerful moment of reconciliation we are now experiencing, and that credit belongs to survivors of residential schools who came forward to tell their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"It's because of them these issues are at the forefront, not only in Hamilton, but elsewhere. Hopefully it will continue, and I think it will … I've been telling people in my speeches: what can you do, what part can you play in this reconciliation?"

At the recent Our Future Hamilton summit at LIUNA Station, Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger opened with the statement, but more noteworthy was Indigenous content that followed.

First there was native music and dance, followed by Shylo Elmayan from the city (wearing moccasins for "rock your moccasins week"), and Chelsea Gabel, a professor in the Indigenous Studies at Mac and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Well-Being, Community Engagement and Innovation, who spoke on electoral reform to better involve native peoples through online voting.

A few days after the summit, Elmayan sat for an interview at Mulberry café on James North near her office in the Lister Block.

Out the window, a poster on a utility pole promoted Cree musician Iskwé, who recently moved to Hamilton and tweeted "I'm really loving this city! Hamilton is home." A couple of blocks south hung a huge mural of Indigenous artist Shelley Niro, whose work is featured at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

And Elmayan pointed out that near Mulberry is the boutique of renowned Indigenous fashion designer Angela DeMontigny.

Elmayan has experience acting as a bridge between two peoples: she has worked as a tenants' rights advocate for Indigenous people, and for Hydro One as a liaison between the company and natives.

But she holds no illusions about the size of her task with the city, helping raise awareness of Indigenous history and culture and advance the cause of reconciliation.

The Indigenous way, she says, is to forever be aware of the seven generations who came before, and the seven generations to come. At the same time, to prevent feeling overwhelmed by the job she approaches it Western-style: one day at a time.

She hopes to develop a policy on Indigenous medicines, which was the focus recently at the first national Indigenous Health Practice and Research Conference in Hamilton.

For example, she'd like to see such things as a smudging ceremony accommodated in city facilities (burning medicinal plants to make a smudge, or cleansing smoke).

She was pleased that, at the end of the summit, several participants approached her and asked if she would help inject Indigenous themes into projects their organizations were launching.

Elmayan, an Anishinaabe native, is a reminder that, when it comes to heritage, there are few straight lines.

She grew up in Hamilton and attended Westdale high school. Her mother is Indigenous from the Long Lake first nation up north; her father, whose surname is Summers, is nonindigenous from Hamilton's North End.

Elmayan's married name is Armenian, and her first name may sound exotic, but her parents named her after a song by pop singer Neil Diamond, who they listened to while dating.

But her Indigenous heritage, she says, is fundamental.

And being Canadian?

"'Canadian' is complicated. Many Indigenous people do not identify as Canadian. On my father's side I'm Canadian, it's important to honour him, too."

Perhaps the most fertile ground for influencing hearts and minds toward reconciliation is education — which was a point emphasized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Patrick Deane is proud to point to steps taken at McMaster: the school has unveiled new buildings and facilities for Indigenous learning including an outdoor classroom overlooking Cootes Paradise, and created the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute.

Last spring the university appointed a curator of Indigenous art for the McMaster Museum of Art; in the summer it was a hub site for the North American Indigenous Games and flew the flag of the Six Nations Confederacy on National Aboriginal Day.

Rick Monture praises Deane's focus on Indigenous issues, calling him a humanist. (Deane's intellectual DNA was wired spending the first 22 years of his life in apartheid-era South Africa.)

And yet some call on universities to go much further than that to "indigenize the academy," which means infusing all aspects of post-secondary education with Indigenous content, including mandatory courses in Indigenous study for undergraduates.

Some universities have taken this step already, such as the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

Deane said the concept has been discussed at McMaster, but the consensus among educators and students is that compulsory learning is not the way to go.

"It would not make people take (Indigenous learning) more seriously or engage in a more thoughtful way."

He has support on that position from Rebecca Jamieson, president of Six Nations Polytechnic (SNP), an institution with a campus on the reserve and in Brantford that offers a university degree in Indigenous language, and hosted an Indigenous Research Symposium last month.

"You can't indigenize something that isn't Indigenous," says Jamieson, who lives on Six Nations, the most populous Indigenous reservation in Canada.

She adds that it's a "dangerous" concept: "You can make people aware, and develop understanding, but you can't make an apple an orange."

Better, she says, to develop in the academy the spirit of the two row wampum — a belt that symbolizes two separate peoples coexisting through mutual respect and understanding.

SNP, which is open to anyone regardless of heritage, attracts students from as far as away as Quebec and the U.S., for its language program.

The province recently passed Bill 177 that acknowledges Indigenous Institutes like SNP — there are nine in Ontario — as the "third pillar" in post-secondary education and training, that will provide predictable funding and is a "game changer" says Jamieson.

Tom Deer, who teaches the Mohawk and Cayuga language at the school, and is one of the "guardians" of knowledge, says the goal shouldn't be making other institutions Indigenous, but to enrich learning at places like SNP and then share with others.

He believes territorial acknowledgments are positive; anything to "put that presence out there, whereas before we were pretty much invisible and forgotten, marginalized." But he fears they will become rote: words that once surprised or shocked audiences are no longer truly heard.

He thinks that Canadians, and especially new immigrants, need to be taught about the 12,000 year presence of Indigenous peoples.

"And then it has to be about moving forward from that, not just let it be, but how do we become a part of something bigger and more meaningful in the future?"

In the fall at McMaster convocation, Rick Monture felt it: hope.

He watched a university official give the usual land acknowledgment, but then also student Kaitlin Debicki offer her own, welcoming the audience, as a Mohawk, to the Dish with One Spoon territories.

("Dish with One Spoon" refers to a treaty between the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people, and has also been a common metaphor used among Indigenous peoples to represent shared stewardship of the land.)

Debicki, an Indigenous woman and PhD graduate, received a standing ovation for a valedictory speech that focused on reconciliation even as she did not shy away from calling what happened to her people in the past "genocide."

"I was surprised, pleasantly," Monture said of the audience reaction. "It was a great moment, you can't take away from it. But it was a moment. We feel good for a while, buoyed up, and then have a terrible moment the next month. That's life. Things are fleeting."

Debicki's mother was Indigenous and gave her up for adoption at birth. She was raised by nonindigenous parents who encouraged her to embrace her native roots. She says reconciliation work has been going on for decades but believes what's happening now could be transformative.

"I'm hopeful. Because that's who I am."

She sat on Mac's Indigenous education committee, where she got to know Deane — who she had been prepared to dislike as a symbol of power, but that's not what happened.

"He is very likable, and I appreciate what he has to say. He's been a good ally."

Deane says he's sympathetic to those who feel what is going on at Mac and elsewhere falls short of fundamental change.

"But at the same time I think it feels as though we are in a different place. The Truth and Reconciliation report was a massive intervention into Canadian social history and politics; there is no ignoring it, there is no going back to a pre-TRC world … I see this as a rapidly accelerating and deepening shift in the country."

There are places in Hamilton where you can tangibly feel that shift, symbolic though it may seem.

One example is an urban oasis not far from Dundurn Castle: drive toward Burlington over the High Level Bridge, turn left on Old Guelph Road, park at the Royal Botanical Gardens' Nature Interpretation Centre.

The 1.1-kilometre stretch of trail here along the waters of Cootes Paradise was formerly called Captain Cootes Trail, created for local hikers in the 1950s, but fell out of use.

In September, after a two-year consultation process the trail was opened and renamed "Anishinaabe Waadiziwin: The Trail Experience."

Anishinaabe is the umbrella word describing tribes including the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

The opening ceremony featured Mississauga elders speaking, including one who said that collaborating with the RBG to restore the trail is "what reconciliation looks like."

Educational readings on Indigenous plants and history were added to the trail, a boardwalk, and a teaching circle at the water's edge, which includes a listening station where you can hear brief messages including one about oral Indigenous history.

It casts in a new light a sign that explains Cootes Paradise was named in 1826 after a British sportsman named Coote — that that's not where the story of this land begins.

Barbara McKean, the head of education at the RBG, says about 22 trees received new labels identifying each by names: Scientific, Anishinaabemowin, English, French and Mohawk.

Translating Indigenous words to English is difficult.

In English, plant names, for example, typically describe something about what it looks like, but the Indigenous name will be one word, layered with meaning, describing where the plant lives, sounds it makes, how it is used medicinally, and so on.

"English is a language of nouns but Anishinaabemowin is a language of verbs," says McKean. She adds: "We have so much to learn."

It is just a trail, but one that more than 100,000 will experience every year.

Each visitor will see the sign, read the name, and from that alone feel a sense of the sweep of history — perhaps even humility at the ground under foot and old weathered pines standing firm in the wind.

That's not everything, but in the long continuum of reconciliation, of the seven generations before and seven to come, it is something.

905-526-3515 | @jonjwells

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