National Holidays and Settler Colonialism

I have fond memories of spending childhood Thanksgivings with my Slovak grandmother in Eastern Pennsylvania. Never a traditional meal, we ate city chicken and Serviettenknödel (a Bohemian dish not dissimilar to traditional dressing). The stories I heard around the dinner table were of the hardships of my immigrant family coming to the U.S. and, despite facing immense adversity, surviving and thriving due to honest hard work. Despite learning about the myths surrounding Thanksgiving and teaching my high school students about Indigenous genocides, it’s been only recently that I began to connect these stories to the larger narrative of U.S. settler colonialism. Maybe it’s because my holiday traditions seemed so rooted in my family’s immigrant past and stories of hardships and survival, which seemed so removed from the myths of Native and European encounters. Maybe it’s a reluctance to connect my happy childhood memories and traditions to ideas of genocide.

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Ojibwe Road Sign from Manitoulin Island, Ontario

This past summer, my partner and I traveled from my childhood home in Western New York to Minnesota around the northern shore of Lake Superior, entering Canada on July 1st and reentering the U.S. on July 4th. July 1st marked the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation (dubbed “Canada 150”). Although it was evident that many Canadians were advancing the national celebration through local parades and decorated lawns, the Canadian national radio (CBC) broadcast story after story troubling the events as a “celebration of colonialism.” Passing through several Anishanaabeg (Ojibwe) reserves in Canada, the recent national efforts to financially support Indigenous communities and cultures was evident in language-revitalization efforts (everything from immersion schools to Ojibwemowin-only road signs), museums, and cultural centers. These radio stories and cultural supports seemed to suggest an awareness of the effects of settler colonialism but were often seemingly overwritten by what appeared to be a desire amongst many Euro-Canadians to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of the nation-state. Canada 150 highlighted a deep and powerful denial of five centuries of colonialism. A denial rooted in Canada’s history and continued existence as a settler-colonial nation.

Growing up near the U.S.-Canadian border, we often received only Canadian television broadcasts. I have clear memories of watching TV shorts on the CBC, “Heritage Minutes” about moments in Canadian national history. One video depicts Jacques Cartier’s misappropriation of the Iroquois word for village. Such narratives of these first encounters echo the myths of peaceful colonization. Myths that, although replete with arrogant clergy and eager frontiersmen, are shown to have been fraught only with friendly misunderstandings, certainly not genocidal intentions. Such mythic narratives mirror what I was taught just south of the border.

Canada has in part grappled with genocide in its national past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) shed light on the history of forced assimilation and abusive boarding schools for Indigenous children. However, it appears many Canadians saw the TRC and national apology as the end to difficult chapters in Canadian history, allowing the country to look towards the future. Many Indigenous scholars have seen this view as a failure of Canadians to fully reckon with the broader history of settler colonialism. Thus, Canada 150 became a moment of contradiction between seemingly trying to recognize one version of the past while celebrating another.

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George Dalbo and his wife, Jenna in Wawa, Ontario

Crossing into Minnesota on July 4th, National Public Radio featured predictable stories of backyard barbecues and an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. Just beyond the border, entering the Grand Portage Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota, one sees signs (written exclusively in English) for Grand Portage State Park and Grand Portage National Monument (a reconstructed trading post mostly celebrating frontier life from a Euro-settler perspective). Quickly, evidence of farming and mining crop up on the horizon, reminding one of the settler-colonial society’s continued occupation and ruin of Native land through industry, farming, and parks. The juxtaposition between the two settler nation-states’ ways of reckoning with their respective (yet similar) histories of cultural genocide was blatant. If Canada still has a long way to go, the U.S. is woefully unaware, unrecognizing, and officially unapologetic of its own history. As in Canada, there is resistance to open discourses about U.S. settler colonialism and genocide.

Perhaps what is at stake here is the fate of “settler futurity” within these settler-colonial nation-states. “Settler futurity” is the sought-after continued existence of the settler state and the dominance of Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans on the land. Settler colonialism is distinguishable from other instances of imperialism and colonialism in that it requires the continued occupation of the land through a physical or cultural negation of the original inhabitance and the maintenance of socio-politico-economic white supremacy.

My high school students are shocked by Aaron Huey’s “America’s Native Prisoners of War.” Although, juniors and seniors in high school, much of the history Huey recounts – broken treaties, forced deportations, and massacres – is new to them. What is often most disturbing for students is not this brutal history, but the grim statistics of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation today: unemployment rates of 85-90%, the highest rates of infant mortality in North America, and a life expectance for men around 48 years (comparable to Somalia). Disturbed by these statistics, students often ask: “Are we [the U.S. government and dominant Euro-American society] still committing genocide?” Despite the question, Huey’s call to “give back the Black Hills,” and similar demands from Indigenous scholars, seem implausible, impossible to them. Students suggest that they can be aware of the issues facing Native Americans and still have their July 4th celebrations just the same.

Every year my students and I reflect on the deep disconnect in U.S. nation consciousness, yet every year I’m struck by just how deep this disconnect runs in our historical and cultural memories. Although my grandmother passed away several years ago, and I now spend the holiday with my partner’s family enjoying the more-traditional turkey and dressing, I’m still unsettled with how easy it is to put aside my knowledge of one version of the past and celebrate another.

 

George Dalbo is a Ph.D. student in Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota with research interests in Holocaust, comparative genocide, and human rights education in secondary schools. Previously, he was a middle and high school social studies teacher, having taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and independent schools in Minnesota, as well as two years at an international school in Vienna, Austria.

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