Friday, April 03, 2009

The Concept of Nationhood

This posting isn't going to mean much of anything unless you go read this thread on Saskboy's blog. After you've done that you can come back here and read the rest.

First of all, Peter is ascribing modern interpretations to words, events and people who lived 350 years ago when he talks about the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The modern concept of nationhood is newer than that. Not only that but he has a pretty sketchy view of more recent history.

Yes, the Cree stopped the telegraph line construction in 1876, and they understood there needed to be an agreement before they would allow their land to be infiltrated by Europeans. After all, they knew there had been treaties signed in Manitoba a few years earlier, and they were also well aware of what was happening to Indian land south of the Medicine Line. But a sense of territoriality and nationhood don't amount to the same thing.

On the other hand, if Peter is suggesting the Indians respected the sovereignty of other groups any more than anyone else did, he's dead wrong. Those very Cree, for example, had several generations earlier lived in the forest and, after acquiring guns and superior trade goods from the HBC, had pushed others out of that part of the prairies and further west. In fact, most of the tribes that live in Saskatchewan today are not indigenous to the territory they now occupy.

For their part, the Canadian government simply wanted to avoid an Indian war such as what was going on south of the border, and prevent the Americans from taking over what is now Western Canada. It was mutually beneficial to enter into treaty. But when the negotiations of Treaty 6 actually began in the late summer of 1876, the Canadian government's negotiators' threat that the Indians would not be able to hold back the tide of settlement so they'd best settle with what they were being offered was the truth and the Indians knew it.

They knew that they were bargaining from an extremely weak position. Why do you think they insisted on a medicine chest, assistance in learning how to farm (actual farm instructors rather than just tools) and assistance in the time of famine and disease? Treaty Six is the only one where those items were raised during the negotiations. The Treaty Six Indians knew their livelihood was disappearing, and in fact, it was only a few short years after the treaty was negotiated that the buffalo disappeared from the Northern plains and those very same Cree fell victim to famine, saved only by the aid delivered, however miserly, by the Canadian government. You have no nation, if you can't defend it.

When I hear the oft repeated meme today that the treaties were negotiated by two nations, implying as it always does, that those nations were of equal stature, I both laugh and cry. It is a total lie. A people on the verge of starvation who knew full well that their way of life was disappearing, who had neither the means nor the knowledge to adapt to a different lifestyle without the help of some other people, were hardly in a position of strength from which to negotiate "nation to nation", no matter what the concept may have been to a nineteenth century nomadic tribe.

In the modern era, by which I mean the 1960s to the present, the idea that Indians thought of themselves as "nations" in the modern sense simply did not exist until they discovered the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which Indians are referred to as, among other things, "nations", and that happened only after the Federal Government made thousands of dollars available to Indian Bands to research land claims so outstanding debts of the same could be settled. Having then discovered that they were "nations", the content of the Royal Proclamation subsequently became grossly over stated.

The Proclamation was an edict issued by King George III compelling his subjects in what was to become the United States of America to quit stealing Indian land. Not only did it not work, but it was one of the measures against which the rebellious young colonies revolted when they issued their famous Declaration of Independence. You can read more about it here. What the modern Indian movement will never admit, though, is that the Royal Proclamation also refers to Indians as tribes. I think you can imagine that the meme "tribe to tribe" doesn't quite have the same cachet.

I challenge Peter to find any documentation that would support that contention that Indians thought of themselves as "nations" prior to the 1970s. Tribes, perhaps. Peoples, perhaps. But not nations. In fact, the absurdity of some of the claims put forward by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians during the 1970s and early 80s gives ample testimony to that fact.

Did you know that at one point they were demanding a place in the United Nations for each of the more than 600 Indian "nations" in Canada? Understand that each and every reserve is now called a Nation, whether there are 30 people or 350 people who belong to it. Only a tiny handful of First Nations have populations that would garner them even "city" status today, let alone the status of a nation. It's rather funny. Had the FSIN achieved this goal, the United Nations would suddenly have grown from a body that then consisted of roughly 150 real "nations" representing what was then five or six billion people world-wide, to an organization with fully 750 "nations" by adding what amounted to only 2% of Canada's population or a mere 1/6000th of the global population as it stood at that time. Such was the political sophistication of Indian leadership then. No, Peter, they did not understand the concept of nationhood, and the fact that every reserve in Saskatchewan is now referred to as a "First Nation" is proof positive that they still haven't got it.


Blogger Saskboy said...

Please leave a comment on my blog and let me know if you have any trouble posting. The times it failed with that long comment was apparently a cookie problem. Do you modify Firefox to not save cookies or just use the default install?

April 07, 2009 6:49 pm  
Blogger Louise said...

I haven't modified anything.

The comment that got caught in your spam filter, or whatever it was, did eventually go through. I had to resend it three times before it got through.

April 07, 2009 7:16 pm  

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