Sâkihitowin Awâsis – From Animal Rights to Anti-Colonial Organizing

Full video with closed captioning available here

Alright, Boozhoo Sâkihitowin Awâsis dishinikawshon, peyakoskan tapasinahikatew mêkwan sakâw michif otipêyimisowak, pi li clan carré. Deshkan Ziibiing niwiiken,
pi mon famee, Ongiara wikiiwuk.

So I just introduced myself in my language, the Michif language, and my Métis name is Sâkihitowin Awâsis, or Awâsis. My English, or GST name, is Cortney. I currently live in Antler River, or London, Ontario. I am from Niagara. I wanted to say thank you to the organizers and everyone listening in from all over the place. It’s an honour to be speaking to you today. michael, I really loved your Line 9 sign in the back, that’s great.

m wheel

So, just to start as you can probably see here, with the image in front of us, I just wanted to give a brief overview of colonization and the impacts this has on indigenous ways of being, so we are all kind of on the same page. So the symbol there, you see of the circle with the four quadrants. I don’t know how familiar people are with that symbol, but it’s the medicine wheel – one of them – and it’s used as a healing tool.

So, this isn’t traditional to all indigenous nations. This particular one is for the Nishnabe. You see it in different nations used with different colors, and like I said, some nations don’t use it at all but have picked it up as a healing tool, because we are all part of this circle. It represents many different things: different spirit animals, times of year, the seasons, passing of time, the four sacred medicines.

We are going to look at it today as the passing of time, so starting in the top right corner we have: Pre Contact, what we had prior to colonization. Women had a respective role in our communities, they are the backbones of our families and nations. The spiritual foundation, the core to Native beliefs, which I will expand on more later. We had strong, healthy families. Everyone had respected roles in our community, balanced roles between women, men and Two-Spirits.

Women were seen as life givers, the centre of our nations, we hear that a lot. The main teachers in preparing youth for the future survival. So upon contact, what happened? We had the
residential school system and the reserve system, were developed under the Indian Act. This really destroyed our family structures, our spiritual beliefs, languages, cultures. These children were literally stolen off their front lawns and forced to go to these schools. Many died at the schools from malnourishment, many died trying to run away back to their
families. Within these schools was the systemic denial of our languages and our cultures. It was an intentional act of cultural genocide, and through the imposition of a patriarchal
system, our women lost respect, basically. This was part of our disruption of the spiritual foundations of our family and the denial of our traditional roles in our communities.

euro scale
Like I said, European values really imposed a male dominated society on us. So we can see what that looks like, I just made a little flowchart here: So really, the hierarchy that was imposed on us, put European men at the top, followed by European women, Native men, Native women and then Two-Spirits. So this was not traditional to us at all. I highlighted the European men there, at the top, because really the society that was formed upon contact centered around not only the narratives of European men, but the resources and rights of European men as well. Everyone gained, well women and Two-Spirits, gained access to the wage labour force and property by what was seen as fulfilling, or becoming basically full humans, in reflection of European men and what that means.

So, back to this: after this hierarchy was established on this
land, we saw it actually imposed on and enforced in our communities. So those male-dominated values broke down our traditional family structures. We see this with the high levels of violence in our communities – so over 800 missing and murdered indigenous women, and high levels of sexual abuse. And really, the Indian Act facilitated all this, the dispossession of our people, as well as the theft of our land.
And I just want to stress that that Act is still in place today, and it is really an apartheid system to have a complete set of
legislature that applies to a certain group of people based on ethnicity.

So I’ll get back to the future later, but basically what I wanted to drive home there is that this process of colonization imposed ways of being and governance on us that wasn’t
traditional. As well, one of the impacts of colonization that kind of stems from the residential school system was the “60’s scoop”, where tens of thousands of children in the 60’s, 70’s, through to the 80s, native children, were taken from their families and put in white homes, again just furthering this colonial agenda of assimilation and genocide.

And this continues today, we are starting to hear it called the ‘Millennium Scoop’, and really, the number of children, native children, in institutionalized care today actually exceeds the amount of children that were in residential schools at the height of that system. So that is very, very alarming. So what we saw with this colonial process is a process of  dehumanization and dispiriting, stripping us of our spiritual beliefs. And this Indian Act system, residential school system, is in my opinion the same colonial system that oppresses animals and the Earth today.

So this is how this violence against indigenous families and nations is linked to violence against animals and the Earth. So I want to explore this connection a little more, really in terms of captivity, because it might be a surprise to some people that
during early reservation times, native people actually were restricted to leave the reserve.

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We actually needed a permit, so that is what I just brought up here. So this one says James Smith, who was actually a chief, is permitted to leave the reserve to go to Battleford just to visit his daughter. It is as simple as that. You will see these as well with the reason being to hunt big game or anything else. So as you can imagine, if you are captive on a reserve, that may not even be on your traditional territories due to dispossession, not only may you not be familiar with the local food system, but you also don’t have access to your traditional food sources due to being confined in a limited land base like that.

So, I don’t know how familiar people are with the term environmental racism, but basically it means that some bodies and people are valued more than others. Indigenous people and people of colour disproportionately face health impacts
and pollutants in their environment, that kind of thing. Essentially, they are denied the right to live healthy, long and meaningful lives.

Just a little stat: in Canada the rates of disease among First Nations and Inuit groups are 5 times higher than the country’s average, and so that just illustrates how disproportionate that is. So in a lot of ways I have not heard this term before, and I could be just making it up, but I feel there is also a kind of environmental speciesism going on in a similar way. For instance, in the area of the tar sands, we don’t expect European or white people to be there, but it is perfectly acceptable for First Nations and wildlife to be living on the front line like that.

So I am just trying to broaden that term to also include animal beings, so just to connect the captivity on reserves, during early times there, to this disconnect from traditional food systems when we were no longer able to leave or move on our territories to access food, we were given by the colonial state what has become known as the five white gifts. So these were
resources brought to indigenous nations by the settler nation and it consisted of sugar, salt, flour, milk and lard. So they’re all white. So even foods that are thought of as traditional to our cultures today, are a product of these five white gifts, because we were denied access to any other foods for so long, or very few. For example, bannock, fried white bread, that you see that at a lot of pow-wows and that kind of thing, is made of these gifts that are not traditional to our cultures at all. So, this diet really extends the oppression of native people, and has resulted in many serious health impacts, such as increasing obesity, diabetes, gallstones.

But this type of colonization that imposes colonial food systems on us actually continues today. In many areas, because of this environment racism, we can no longer harvest the food medicines or eat animals in the area because of overwhelming levels of pollutants. We have eroded and completely destroyed the relationship and ability to connect to the natural world in a meaningful way. So for example of a neighboring nation, where I live right now, Aamjiwnaang First Nation. They are surrounded on 3 sides but what is known as Chemical Valley, so intense petro-chemical industry, it’s absolutely disgusting and I cannot stress that enough. But there was recently a study done in the area, where cedar, one of the four sacred medicines on that medicine wheel there, actually can’t be used for ceremonies anymore due to the high mercury levels. And that just tears my heart apart. Our ancestors would definitely not know what to do, they would not even recognize the environment, I don’t think.

So, when environments are destroyed or contaminated, this affects the food that it can provide obviously. And like I alluded to before, environmental destruction in this way is a consequence of Western society’s detachment from our food and medicine systems. But I think it also detaches animals from their food systems in a lot of ways. So, captivity, like a farm for instance, operates in the same way that a reserve did, early on. So there is an elder who facilitates the moon ceremonies I go to, Elva Jamieson, she is of the Cayuga nation and I have heard her tell the story a few times now, but she basically explains that — using cows as an example — that when they are held captive in an area, they don’t have the ability or the choice to eat what is medicine for them because they are restricted. So what ends up happening, when they don’t have the freedom to move where they like and find those medicines for themselves, they also experience increased sickness much like what we’ve have seen through colonial
history with indigenous peoples. In turn, when people eat those animals they are, in turn, harming themselves and it’s just moving up the food chain. So, not only have humans,
but all animals, have all lost our direct relationship with the world around us and are really given a false choice.

So, what I wanted to do with this presentation is really provide reasons to expand the scope of animal rights mobilizing to an anti-colonial framework, so that it includes understanding
of the different kinds of relationships and responsibilities and is basically strengthened by that. So, what do I mean by a narrow animal rights framework? Basically, one that is focused on ‘rights’ as something that can be given to animals as opposed to originating from them, and is solely focused on that and doesn’t include how we are connected to our environment and each other. Some risks, I think, of narrow animal rights framework is that I don’t think an animal can really truly be liberated and lead a meaningful life in a toxic environment. It prevents them from thriving, much like
it does humans.

And when the scope of animal rights is so narrow, it really can invisibilize or override the environmental and health concerns
of humans. So an example that some of you might be familiar with, is of the cultural appropriation involved in eating quinoa. So quinoa has actually been long a long harvested
by indigenous people in southern countries, specifically Bolivia. It’s only been very recently, maybe in the last five years, that it has grown in intense popularity in the western world. So what we need to be aware of is because of the popularity, Bolivians can actually no longer afford this grain due to the rising places here. When I reflect on this, I think about how important wild rice, minomin, is in our ceremonies here and how quinoa likely has a similar role in the spiritual life with those in the South.

There are a few things that really bug me about this: not only is that mass demand resulting in, what was diverse type of quinoa, it’s turning that into a quinoa mono-culture, which have a whole set of impacts on the environment and the animals. But the lack of access for indigenous peoples to this traditional food is also due to the fact that the modern, or
western diets, is easily pushed on them. As I sort of went over with the 5 white gifts here, this has devastating impacts on health.

So I think that an animal rights framework, or vegetarian-vegan ethics, that is rooted in an anti-colonial framework would be able to respond to this issue that arises in our developing of ethical diets in a meaningful way. If we had a response, the same responsibility, to humans and indigenous peoples as we strive to have with animals, we would recognize that we need to use or eat things that are upholding those responsibilities.

Other responsibilities that I believe I have to other life forms:
they really portray animals as our family in traditional understanding. They are our brothers and sisters, our and relatives, and women are the centre of our nation. As you can see that is in stark contrast to the hierarchy, I had up before – you can just picture that animals would probably even be below Two-Spirits on that list. The way that a lot of our traditional understandings operate, is instead of a linear hierarchy like this we all are a part of the circle.

Another responsibility that we have is with all of our actions, every day, to be thinking about seven generations before us and also after us. So how and what our ancestors did inform
our actions today, as well as what we can do for the future generations. One way that we can do this is by gathering and eating only what’s needed and acting to protect that food biodiversity. Another responsibility for taking the life of an animal, we are supposed to ask the animal’s consent and really
thank the spirit of the animal for sacrificing its life for us, as food, by laying down tobacco. So, of course this relationship dynamic is open to the possibility of the animal refusing, so this is because animals – like humans – have inherent rights.

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So my inherent right includes the meaning of my spirit name and responsibilities that that entails; the responsibilities of my clan, the Carré clan, which is to take care of the river and the waterways; as well as my nation (I didn’t say this earlier but when I introduced myself in my language Otipemisiwak, which is what the Michif call ourselves, actually means “the people who govern themselves”), so a large responsibility of our nation is to uphold that traditional governance structure.

But just like indigenous peoples’ inherent rights, animals’ inherent rights were really eroded and even lost as a result of colonization. But human and animal life is actually on the continuum, spiritually and physically, which frames humans
and other animals as having personhood and self determination – which goes back to the idea of their ability to consent to being eaten or not. So animals have independent life, their own purpose, their own relationships with the Great Spirit and the take home is: they are not made for food, they are not a resource. Again, they are our family. The animal consent is required. So overfishing, overhunting, captivity,
industrial farming, wholesale destruction of habitat, certainly gives animals a reason to refuse to sacrifice themselves and these conditions do not fulfill our responsibilities as people of the Earth to protect the land and ecological relations.

But animals can refuse to be sacrificed in certain ways, and given the state of the world, I feel like this is happening more and more. That being said, I do believe that animals can still agree to be sacrificed if approached in respectful ways. Our ancestors did use animals in ceremonies and continue to do so, however, these animals were not exploited or oppressed but honored through song and ceremony. We were not eating meat three meals a day, you know? Group hunting could be half a dozen to a dozen people that would really only be taking home a deer or two. I know a lot of people are going to disagree with this and I am prepared for that. But I think that it is important for decolonization and indigenous resurgence to have an important role in movements for animal liberation.

It really transforms how we see our responsibilities as settlers, as indigenous people, as mixed people, to each other and the Earth. And upholding treaty relations as well, which I could totally go on another whole rant, but I think I’m already over time. I just wanted to stress moving forward, that we are all part of that medicine wheel, dependent upon each other like all living beings are. We are all responsible for helping each other on our healing journey, which is a transformative
process that intertwines human and animal liberation
and in order to survive we need to reconnect with nature in this intimate way that’s focused on dependence, not domination.

In a lot of ways, animal rights activists can risk reproducing colonial power dynamics in their organizing. For instance, instead of protesting the tarsands, or pipeline projects that will accommodate their expansion, some activists take the time and energy to protest traditional Haudenosauneeau or indigenous hunts. So, I just wanted to clarify a little bit, these hunts aren’t about population control. It’s not about the hunters servicing the environment by killing animals. The hunters see themselves as receiving a service from that deer, which have given their consent, to support their traditional values and ways of life, that were sustainable and healthy and provided nourishment for our spirits prior to colonization. In this way, animal rights organizing can actually be used as a tactic for maintaining white supremacy, when spiritual protocols and cultural values concerning our relationship with the animals, such as tobacco offerings and asking for consent, are deemed subordinate or inferior to the values of the activists or vegans. So it can provide a reason for vegans or vegetarians to feel they are superior to others based on their cultural belief. So… that is obviously a continuum from a colonial agenda that imposes values on people, even if our ways of knowing have been historically more ethical.

So I just wanted to end, I guess, with suggesting some strategies for building a more united movement: sometimes it is a strength of a movement for indigenous people to take the lead, but as with the quinoa example, don’t appropriate indigenous knowledge. Obviously there’s been an increase in scientist and health professionals in the western world, kind of discovering all the health benefits of quinoa. This was the indigenous knowledge and we need to recognize the original caretakers of that plant that enable us to have access to it today, and be more respectful of the preservation and resurgence of the indigenous traditions that depend upon those foods. Similarly, don’t underestimate the worth and value of other people’s knowledge, even if it is not completely compatible with yours, because you do want to be mindful of not furthering colonial violence on people.

So what, I guess, I suggest for the take home is try to become more aware of the colonial history where you live. It is often extremely complicated. Land acknowledgments in the area where I live are very complicated because the Attawandaron were completely killed off, the Wendat-Huron were then dispossessed. Currently there’s three neighboring nations to the city. So, this can inform our daily life and organizing in endless ways, and can really be an empowering thing for other people, especially indigenous people, for you to take that time to educate yourself. It really can empower you as well, to  really re-create how you relate to the world around you and other people and animal beings by embodying these responsibilities. So, I wanted to thank you for listening today and I look forward to your questions and comments.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Sâkihitowin Awâsis is a Michif (Oji-Cree Métis) spoken word artist, writer, and community organizer currently helping to cultivate resistance to Enbridge line 9; the tar sands pipeline that runs through Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lenape, and Michif territories in so-called Ontario.

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