Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Recitation of the Great Law

This image is an artwork derived from a wampum belt.  Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, wampum is not "Indian money" but a form of treaty, written in image.  On this famous wampum, the two lines represent the Iroquois and the European colonisers - two cultures operating in parallel, and heading in the same direction.

This was just one of many things I learnt yesterday at the Six Nations Reserve, where the Woodland Cultural Centre operates as the Harbourfront's partner in presenting Planet IndigenUs.  The "Rez" is large, though nowhere near the size it should be according to the original treaties.  There are no visible borders - but it's clear when you are on it, as the housing pattern shifts.  Instead of the grids beloved of white North America, the houses on the Six Nations sit at a distance from one another, each in its own piece of land.  Sometimes the land is cultivated, sometimes not.  But is is always there.

My day was packed.  I saw the museum and the art exhibitions at Woodland. The centre's main building is converted from an old Residential School - Canada's equivalent of the Stolen Generation.  Just recently, on an upper floor, a stash of toys has been discovered under the floorboards: marbles, sticks, little hand-made dolls.  They were hidden there because the children in the Residential Schools were not allowed to play.  

I saw a game of lacrosse ("the oldest team sport in the world", I was proudly told - and there was an ancient picture to prove it).  I visited the home of the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, who lived in the late 19th / early 20th century.   She visited London, where she was paraded as exotic - although the house was incredibly European in style.  Her father, who knew all the languages of the region as well as English, was an interpreter, and was clearly obsessed with Napoleon.  His daughter was named after the Emperor's sister, Pauline Bonaparte.  Most importantly of all, I visited the Six Nations Polytechnic, and the Indigenous Knowledge Centre, where indigenous ideas are being kept alive, indeed revitalised and validated for the contemporary world.  They've had recent symposia around seeds and cultivation, food science, healing, nursing, language....  it was all very inspiring.

Back at the centre, I was able to sit in on rehearsals for a new play called Salt Baby, which deals with the issue of marrying outside the community.  A really important piece to tour around the reservations.  Rather wonderfully, as I walked into the room, I realised that the director was Yvette Nolan, and one of the actors was Derek Garza - both of whom came to Origins 2009 with Almighty Voice and His Wife

Thinking hard about the day, I headed back to the main site in Toronto for the Festival's evening around Truth and Reconciliation, with the indigenous judge who heads Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Sinclair.  The commission is focused largely on the Residential Schools, although the history of Canada's black population was also brought into the picture, and was a powerful part of the evening.  The judge was very clear that, without truth, there could be no reconciliation: "History is the account we present to ourselves of our collective journey".

The title of this post?  On the Six Nations, there is currently a process of Reciting the Great Law of the Iroquois.  It takes about ten days, including explanations and discussions.  The process is supposed to happen about every five years, but it has in fact been twenty since it was last done, because of internal tensions in the community.  The fact that it is happening now is another re-assertion of indigenous identity, and another part of a healing process.

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