Workshopping Historical “Response-Ability” among Settlers

Elaine 2010By Elaine Enns, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. This piece was originally printed in Geez Magazine’s Decolonization Issue.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage,
need not be lived again.”
— Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” 1993

Facing painful history is indeed wrenching. In North America, we Settler descendants often avoid hard conversations about past and present relationships with Indigenous people. In my ethnic community, Mennonites in Saskatchewan, I have been exploring our resistances to “response-ability” in doctoral research, through interviews, focus groups and workshops. This piece summarizes two —selective memory and distortions in our communal narrative—which obscure the whole story and the truth that alone can lead to reconciliation.

Consequential Silences

Unlike most other Canadian Settlers, Mennonites tend to stress the importance of knowing their history. Indeed, it is common for families to produce genealogical and popular history books (my family has no less than seven). Yet rarely do such narratives include stories of Indigenous neighbors. “Among our constituency,” admits Eileen Klassen Hamm, program director of Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan, “we see significant ignorance around Aboriginal issues, and a general acceptance of dominant society perspectives—for example, the prejudice that Native people are ‘lazy’ or have received too many public benefits. Even in congregations that are engaged in Indigenous issues there is ample evidence that our people simply do not know the story of colonization.”

In several workshops with Settler Mennonites I have facilitated a timeline exercise, in which we construct a parallel chronology of our migration stories on one line and Indigenous history on the other. Most participants knew in great detail their family and community’s history, but could plot few events on the Indigenous line. As one put it: “Aboriginal history was invisible in the family stories I learned.”

It is often controversial to break these silences. Another participant recounted how as a high school student he brought home a history book that celebrated Louis Riel. His father was offended at the “trash I was reading about the Riel ‘outlaws’,” an antipathy he traced to his family’s history of victimization in Russia. How many Mennonite immigrants unconsciously projected their fear of the rebels who destroyed their communities during the Russian Revolution onto Indigenous peoples when they arrived in Canada—not to mention onto Native land activists today?

Ignorance about Native realities, however, is a learned condition, which perpetuates dangerous fantasies about the past and prohibits authentic relationships in the present. For example, one interviewee acknowledged that “in the minds of most Mennonites, the prairies were vacant land, free and open; there was no recognition that it belonged to the First Nations.” But this Settler myth has a long and destructive legacy, dating back to the medieval Doctrine of Discovery’s notion of terra nullius. Settler descendants need to understand that such presumptions of European entitlement still undergird our rationalizations for the conquest of “uninhabited” territories and colonization of “undeveloped” lands throughout the Americas.

Self-Legitimating Myths of Superiority and Innocence

A related problem with our Mennonite communal narrative are the significant and troubling ways it conforms to the broader patterns of European pioneer hagiographies. We emphasize heroic tales of our hardworking, faithful and resilient people, while omitting potentially contradictory or shameful details of how we got land, or what happened to First Nations communities. Though not unique to Mennonites, such narratives of innocence and/or nobility often mask trauma, deny (or legitimate) Settler privilege, and encode attitudes of superiority—all of which inhibit our ability to relate to Indigenous peoples. I’ll focus on two key aspects with which we wrestle in our workshops.

Mennonites typically believe that their immigrant ancestors made the Canadian prairies better and more productive; as one participant put it: “We made good farmland out of swamps.” The problem is, this self-congratulatory trope (which lies at the heart of the colonial narrative) insinuates that before European settlement, the land was neither tended nor cared for properly. Such attitudes have a shadow side, reflected by a workshop participant who shared confessionally: “My dad chose to sell our land to an Indigenous tribe. I’m frustrated and ashamed of what comes up inside of me every time I go home to look at that land. They took the land that I worked on—every rock I picked and every tree I watered—and just destroyed it. I’m so angry about it!”

The combined self-perceptions of immigrant survival and Settler hard work has indeed led to a superiority complex among many Mennonites, especially when comparing themselves to Indigenous peoples. One participant summed it up: “The thing I hear most about is our ‘overcoming.’ Bad things happened to us too, and look what we did! We survived and look what we have become: we’ve educated our children and grown our businesses. This prevents us from being vulnerable and from connecting with other people who also have struggled.”

Our narratives about toughness and resilience seek to assure us that we were not damaged by the violence our Mennonite ancestors experienced. Our belief that hard work and faithfulness simply erased our trauma is not only misguided, but plays into pejorative judgments about those who appear weak or wounded from past (or present) violations. It also likely undergirds Mennonite attitudes of either paternalistic charity or antipathy towards First Nations. Rather than understanding how poverty, addictions and crime in Native communities are connected to the continuing legacy of colonial violence and dispossession, we blame the victim.

“We assume that First Nations trauma stemmed from just one historical event, like ours in Russia,” said an interviewee. “In fact, theirs is a continuous history of being second class citizens in their own land since the arrival of Europeans.” Some Mennonites “think Indigenous people are bad because of the violence they experienced,” lamented another workshop participant, so their stories of pain are discredited “all the time.” But these same people are “unable to tell their own story honestly. They are not willing to be vulnerable, because we might have to admit something about our family that’s too hard to deal with.” Victimized communities often exhibit symptoms of what social psychologist John Mack calls ‘egoism of victimization.’ A participant recognized that Mennonites “saw ourselves as victims, needing protection, so we failed to see other issues that were going on. We only want to see our innocence.”

But moving from a superiority complex to historical response-ability will involve acknowledging honestly the ways in which racial privileges trumped ethnic differences to advantage Mennonite recovery from marginalization. One interviewee noted that most Mennonites believe “we purchased our land through fair and square deals,” and prospered only due to “hard work.” But farming is made much more viable and successful if subsidized by granted or cheap land, or by governmental incentives, tax breaks, preferential markets, assumed water rights, access to transportation and technology, etc.

“Mennonites were given all kinds of special privileges in Russia,” said an interviewee. “Some became very wealthy there, partly because they were hard working, but also because they were received significant benefits—they were even called privilegia. We went through a period of trauma, but then we came here, where the Canadian government wanted us and gave us breaks based upon the color of our skin or work ethic. Before long we were back in positions of privilege; we don’t tell that side of the story very often! ” A notorious example is the case of Stoney Knoll in Saskatchewan, where in the late 19th century land was taken from the Young Chippewayan tribe by the government without consultation or compensation, and granted to Mennonite homesteaders. Our communal narrative must no longer conveniently overlook these parts of the story.

Toward Restorative Solidarity

I believe that if we Mennonites (and all Settlers) “do our own work” (Audre Lorde) around the issues described above, we can animate practices of what I call “restorative solidarity.” This will involve embracing historical “response-ability” concerning the colonial legacy and building empathy with Native communities victimized by historic and current injustices. We need to listen to how Indigenous communities are identifying harms, needs and responsibilities while investigating our complicity past and present, which the just-completed Canadian Truth and Reconciliation process gave us extraordinary opportunities to do. And then our churches can covenant to become true “Treaty People,” working with First Nations to make things as right as possible, which can include covenants of accountability, restitution, reparation and (ideally) reconciliation.

What are the Settler narratives your family and social group tell—or don’t? Only facing the whole story can prevent painful history from being lived again.

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