Navigating Without Stars

The recent discovery of over 1000 unmarked graves next to Canadian boarding schools for First Nations children who had been wrenched from their families has deservedly clouded Thursday’s Canada Day celebrations, and proven that Canada isn’t entirely the cuddlier North American nation that it depicts itself to be.

Indigenous children at Holy Cross school, Alaska

Being reminded of the critical importance of recognising the original inhabitants of our unceded landscapes has spurred me to research the First Nations people of my American mother’s area, Delaware, and particularly the Delmarva basin, where Delaware, Maryland and Virginia meet, on the Nanticoke River where my great-grandfather was once a lobster fisherman. The family would regularly find arrowheads in the ground, and even one Indigenous man’s skeleton buried upright in the riverbank, apparently looking out over the water.

I wasn’t expecting a cheery story, but theirs is particularly disheartening. The Lenni Lenape people, whose name meant ‘true, original people’ and who once inhabited a wide swathe of the North-East all the way to what is now New Jersey, were displaced by expanding European colonisation. Most were eventually relocated under the Indian removal policy to reservations in Oklahoma, though some ended up in Wisconsin and others in Canada. 

The town of Nanticoke and the Nanticoke River, along whose slow-moving, midgy banks my maternal grandfather grew up, are named after the Anglicised name of the Nentego (meaning ‘Tidewater’) people. In 1990 they numbered only 1000, and their language is officially extinct, although there are some efforts by speakers of a similar language of the Algonquin family to revive it. Various branches of the Nanticoke people are federally and/or state recognised.

But one of the tribes of the Nanticoke people, the Choptank, are now extinct.

Let that sink in.

For all the efforts to preserve biodiversity among animals (which are also sorely lacking, let’s be honest), why isn’t there more of an outcry over an entire ethnic group of human beings becoming extinct? But this is just the tip of the iceberg; according to Wikipedia, 32 tribes have met the same fate in the US – and if you think that’s bad, over 1,800 nations (each of which contained numerous tribes) have become extinct in Brazil.

The brutality of this scale of human catastrophe is loathsome enough. Millions of people across the Americas were seen as collateral damage in the European imperial project; it is estimated that 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas died within 200 years of white people first settling there. 

True, a great part of this was from disease. But even then, what made Europeans think that their own need to escape the plague-ridden cities of Europe was more important than the protection of the First nations people from those deadly ailments? They weren’t entirely ignorant about the transmission of illness, as some of the spread of diseases was deliberate.

Rather, there was a generalised view of their sense of racial superiority in matters of culture, philosophy, religion, science and beyond – hence their urgent desire to put Indigenous children in schools (often religious ones) to indoctrinate them about European values, and with it the sense of their own people’s inferiority.

School Begins, cartoon published in Puck, 1899. Note the text on the blackboard, the Indigenous boy sitting at the back with his book upside-down, and the Black boy washing the window. Source: Wikimedia

The death of a people means also the death of their culture, language, and their whole approach to the world, which we know from remaining First Nations people to be extraordinarily rich in respect for environment and spirit alike.

In contrast to the smash-and-grab attitude of Europeans of the time, who believed that resources were there for the taking – and whoever was more efficient at smashing and grabbing deserved it most – there seems to be an extraordinary degree of coherence across First Nations people in terms of honouring the spiritual qualities of nature.

This includes ceremonies held to thank the Earth for her gifts. When something is given out of generosity, as Robin Wall Kimmerer points out in Braiding Sweetgrass, on taking those gifts you feel not only gratitude, but also a sense of restraint. If you see T-shirts for sale at a dollar each, you might be tempted to buy a whole armful, but if someone offers them to you as a gift, you would probably only take one – and be inclined to offer a gift in return.

Vintage postcard depicting a Hopi thanksgiving ceremony, Pueblo of Oraibi, Arizona. Bear in mind that such photos were always staged and coloured afterwards, as well as passing through the white gaze of the photographer.

As Kimmerer and others have pointed out, Indigenous American languages very often feature verbs much more than nouns (the reverse of European languages), emphasising processes happening in time, which cannot be owned, rather than material objects, which can. Perhaps this also lends itself to a view of subjectivity that is embodied, rather than the common Western misconception that a person can transcend their personhood and attain true objectivity.

In his book Blackfoot Physics, the quantum physicist F. David Peat relays a number of anecdotes from Blackfoot and Cree friends about their method of educating children, which flies in the face of Western institutional book learning, with its top-down approach of pouring knowledge into the empty receptacles of children’s passive brains. (Clearly whoever came up with this system hasn’t met the kids of today.)

One anecdote that springs to mind describes a father teaching his son to row a canoe. They were navigating a fast-moving river, and heading directly for a huge rock, but the father didn’t intervene. Instead, he allowed his son to figure out for himself, in real time, what he needed to do to avert the disaster. This embodied knowledge cannot be gained intellectually by reading a book, and it’s an important feature of human learning in every culture; think of how you learned to swim, ride a bike, rock a baby to sleep, or cook.

First Nations girl fishing on the Skeena River, British Columbia, 1915. Source: Wikimedia

There’s another feature of Indigenous culture that I feel we in the postnormal world are lacking, and that is the presence of elders. Whether it’s from a systematic disruption of the intergenerational continuum through age-specific schooling, or our own sheer orneriness in not wanting to listen to anyone from outside of our own peer groups, I feel we’ve ended up in a situation in which elders are egregiously absent. 

I’ve been pondering this a lot recently in relation to intentional communities. That includes converts (for anyone who hasn’t read my writing before, my parents converted to Islam through a series of Sufi communities in the early 70s). These were almost exclusively younger people, in their 20s or 30s, who had most likely broken from their own families and may even have been ostracised by them for becoming Muslim.

I cannot emphasise enough the benefit of having this generation – now older and a fair bit wiser – to talk to and listen to, not only in matters of faith and spirituality, but also relationships, work, artistic pursuits…just having the sense that someone has gone before on this path, even if it looked quite different when they passed along it, is very reassuring.

From personal memories that make history feel realer, to life experience that we can vicariously learn from (aka wisdom), to practical skills that often relate to self-sufficiency, to professional advice from people with many years in the field, to simply being there for our children when we need a break and they need a story, we need elders.

Elderly Muslim man from Xunhua, China. Source: Wikipedia

Striking out is such a common experience for Westerners that it seems like you haven’t lived if you haven’t done it. And there is a lot of value in being alone, travelling, having new experiences, figuring out who you are. But it can also feel like you’re swimming a sea full of kelp tangling your legs, without a mental map of the stars to find your way. 

The space where elders should be becomes particularly glaring when you have children. The burden of creating a world around your family is impossibly huge in this capitalist hamster wheel we call normality, and exhausting to even attempt.

And yet we do attempt it; talk to mums who live far from their families and can’t find supportive communities while their children are young. You have to switch between gruff, instructive uncle, firm, boundary-enforcing mum, and kindly, cookie-baking grandma all the time, which must be just as confusing for kids as it is for us.

I know that for some people, there is no way to reconcile with their blood families. Perhaps they have embraced a new religion that their families cannot accept. Or their parents are abusers whom they need to get as far away from as possible and never look back. Whatever the reason, there should still be adoptive elders around who can fill certain gaps in our lives.

Granddaughter’s thanks for her grandmother raising her, Villasflores, Mexico.
Photo by Jim Kinney, via Wikimedia.

In a way, it’s easier to relate to adoptive elders. There isn’t the baggage of having grown up in the same household (though that baggage usually becomes a lot less heavy when you put it down, open it up, and get rid of the iron weights rattling around in there). Besides, they might have professional skills that you can learn from in some kind of apprenticeship, and which your own parents might not have had.

Elders aren’t there to be our cheerleaders, to put plasters on our boo-boos or to give endless free babysitting. But they can offer counsel, and as far as I can tell, most are happy to offer it. (Some might find it hard to hold it back.) 

In the end, we have to figure things out for ourselves, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that we are living in exceptionally unfamiliar times. Social changes are dizzyingly fast, and mental health is a particularly pressing concern; for people with so much, we seem to feel so empty. 

I think back to those First Nations people buried upright in the bank of the Nanticoke River, returning to the Earth that they saw as a Mother, having probably lived to a great degree in a sense of interconnectedness with nature and people alike. I am sure that we would be able to navigate these waters more confidently if we had a wider mesh of human connections, from those tied firmly to the posts all the way out to those dancing on the waves.