Publicly acknowledging Indigenous territory at events has become commonplace, but it must be about more than protocol and a nice sentiment.

More and more people are beginning to learn that Canada’s Parliament Buildings squat on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory. Unceded refers to the fact that the historic treaties reached with the Crown did not include Algonquin territory. As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from what is now called the Ottawa River valley, I have heard Members of Parliament and Senators over and over again follow the protocol of acknowledging my traditional territory. Unfortunately, I have come to experience this protocol to be meaningless and somewhat patronizing. This is especially so when descendants of settlers and newcomers do it without knowing what this ritual really means.

Indigenous Nations existed here on Turtle Island, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in very well-defined territories. Many people are unaware that we had and continue to have structures of governance, such as defining and sharing our lands and resources with other Nations. Long before the colonizers came here we entered into treaty relationships with neighbouring Nations such as the Mohawk Nation and Wendat (Huron) Nation, sharing and trading with one another. While generally our territories are marked by the natural features of the land and waterways such as rivers, lakes, valleys, or forests, sometimes a natural feature is the very entity that united members and clans of a Nation. One such example is the Kichesippi, now called the Ottawa River, which served to unite the Algonquin who are located in what is now called the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Our structures of habitation and living off the land were fluid and based on natural law – they were different from European governance structures. But this did not mean our territories were vacant and free for all the settlers who came and continue to come. On the contrary, Indigenous territories are marked and ascribed with our beliefs and stories. Oiseau Rock (in what is now Sheenboro, ON) and Mazinaw Rock (in what is now Bon Echo Provincial Park) are both land and waterscapes within Algonquin territory, where the four sacred elements of rock, water, fire, and wind came together. Further, Akikpautik, now known as Chaudière Falls just moments away from Parliament Hill, is the place where Creator inscribed the land and waterscape with the First Sacred Pipe: The ultimate symbol and ritual of peace and reconciliation.

“Fall of the Grande Chaudiere on the Outaouais River” Frederick Christian Lewis, 1807.

In 1763, following the fall of the French in what is now known as North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation to spell out administration of the lands. The document was part of a treaty that stands as a “positive guarantee of First Nations self-government,” as scholar John Borrows has said, on lands not already claimed by the Crown as colonies. The proclamation stated that nobody could claim or settle on that land, and it laid out a treaty process.

The following year in 1764, the Treaty at Niagara ratified and clarified the terms of the proclamation. The British government’s superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson, relied on wampum diplomacy to ensure the successful ratification of the proclamation as well as to codify the historic event within Indigenous literacy tradition. During the ratification of the treaty, Johnson presented two Wampum Belts to the Anishinaabeg: The British and Western Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt and The Twenty Four Nations Wampum Belt. The first Belt codifies a relationship between equal allies that was as strong as links in a chain, a relationship that requires upkeep – a process of re-polishing what may tarnish, just as silver tarnishes. The second Belt represents the Indigenous Nations that participated at Niagara, with a chain secured to a rock on Turtle Island, running through the 24 Nations’ hands, and attached to a British vessel. This second belt informs the British that Indigenous Nations would pull on the chain and bring them back to the terms of the treaty relationship if they became neglectful.

Indigenous Nations also presented Johnson with the Two Row Wampum Belt. This Belt codifies a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in the philosophy and practice of non-interference mediated by peace, friendship, and respect. It is within these three Wampum Belts, along with the Proclamation, that the Indigenous understanding of Canada’s constitutional beginnings is codified. Collectively they represented the negotiating process the British and Indigenous Nations were to take to ensure equal share of the resources and bounty of the land.

Many Canadians might have thought that federal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef was supporting the nation-to-nation relationship and reconciliation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on when she acknowledged unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Anishinaabe territory during her maiden speech. I experienced it differently though. As a long time Indigenist thinker and doer that places Indigenous knowledge at the core of all I do, I am very aware that Canada’s policy around comprehensive land claims (so-called modern treaties) continue to force Indigenous Nations such as the Algonquin to extinguish or terminate our land and water rights, rather than being about establishing a genuine treaty relationship that is guided by equally sharing the land and resources. I am also very aware of the ongoing sex discrimination in the Indian Act that continues to treat the descendants born before 1985 of Indian women who married-out as not equal to the descendants, again born before 1985, of Indian men who married-out. Both of these processes continue to deny Indigenous Nations our right to maintain jurisdiction of our territories and the gifts that the Earth provides. The land claims process and the Indian Act, are processes whereby Canada is able to terminate their treaty responsibilities established in 1764 with the Treaty of Niagara.

Acknowledging Algonquin territory must be about more than protocol, rhetoric, and a lovely sentiment. Acknowledging traditional Indigenous territories means valuing that we are indeed Nations in concrete and real ways. It must mean valuing the stories Creator has, and we have, inscribed in our land and waterscapes as both marking our territory and as the beginning of our governance structures. Acknowledging Algonquin Anishinaabeg traditional territory must mean respecting our right to live off our land and the resources of the land and water so that we can build our own governance structures such as schools, medical institutions, and legal systems.

We want more than the protocol of a land acknowledgement: We want our Land and the gifts of that Land. As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe, I want the stories of the Land respected, and Algonquin Land rights respected; Algonquin need our Land returned to us so we too can live a good life. We want genuine reconciliation not more of the same old, same old meaningless rhetoric.

Photo: Wampum Belts New Editions made by Lynn Gehl. Photo by N.K. Gehl.


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