Canada 2017·Opinion

The Wigwam Conspiracy: why are Canada 150's Indigenous people stuck in time?

In the midst of Canada 150 celebrations, a trend is emerging: Indigenous peoples often appear as static and stuck in time. Hayden King and Erica Violet Lee challenge what they see as the tokenism, paternalism and problems with the "Canada 150 party."

In the midst of a party celebrating Canadian civilization, Indigenous peoples appear as static stereotypes

An "Indian village" at Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau, Que., part of Winterlude and #Canada150. (Hayden King)

"Exile is more than a geographical concept,'' he said. ''You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room." — Mahmoud Darwish

The wigwam conspiracy

A common theme in Canada's 2017 celebrations is the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, and in the early months of this auspicious year, a trend is emerging. That inclusion is signalled via familiar symbols, often the "Indian Village." At Ottawa's Winterlude, New Year's Eve celebrations in Saskatoon and across the country at official Canada 150 events, you will find blow-up igluvigaq, the ubiquitous tipi and maybe a reconstructed wigwam, too.

But touring these exhibits, the familiar tropes immediately appear, ready for Canadian consumption: tanned hides, basket-making workshops and bannock over a fire. Of course the vast majority of us do not live in the tipi or wigwam today. And in 1867, many of our ancestors were living in framed-timber homes. So why don't Indigenous peoples get the benefit of a contemporary existence and why are the default images in Canada at 150 the performance of stereotypes?

It becomes apparent that 150 years of 'progress'is made possible by emphasizing fabricated notions of Indigenous primitivity.

In their proper context, these symbols and practices are appropriate. Tipis are used for ceremonial purposes in Nehiyaw askiy, only along with extensive pole and hide teachings; likewise with the lodge in Anishinaabe aki. But out of context, their warmth and complexity are undermined by the flimsy-cloth-draped-over-sticks versions found at Canada 150 Indian villages.

In the midst of a party celebrating Canadian civilization, Indigenous peoples appear as static, stuck in time. It becomes apparent that 150 years of "progress" is made possible by emphasizing fabricated notions of Indigenous primitivity. Those original nations are presumed extinct with the emergence of Canada, or perhaps they failed to evolve into the present.

Both impressions permit the Canada 150 party to take place without critical reflection and more, permit colonialism's ongoing free entry. This is the inclusive message of a drafty wigwam.

Just don't drink the water

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a crowd in Saskatoon that — contrary to what the First Nations leaders say — what the youth need is "a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land." It is a kind of paternalism that has shaped Canada's policy toward Indigenous communities (and specifically children and youth) since 1867.

Cree lawmaker Romeo Saganash took issue and responded in a letter. He also challenged Trudeau's reference to the land and water: "It is time for the federal government to help maintain our very important spiritual connection with the water. This is a connection that your government further embraces through your approval of projects like Site-C, Kinder Morgan, and the Muskrat Falls Dam."

The hypocrisy highlighted here speaks to the illusion of Canada. The narrative of this place, self-styled as true North strong and free, leviathan of boreal, granite and freshwater, hiking, paddling, environmentalism and stewardship. These national touchstones are the epitome of cognitive dissonance. Politicians love wilderness, sure, but they love pipelines more.

New research shows more than 90 per cent of the population at Grassy Narrows First Nation is experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning. (Jody Porter/CBC)

While Canadians grow richer on clear-cut forests in northern Saskatchewan, bitumen extracted from central Alberta and diamonds from the James Bay lowlands, Indigenous peoples are dispossessed or poisoned out of their homes. Grassy Narrows, Akwesasne, Little Buffalo, Aamjiwnaang, among others, are all familiar with the process.

On-reserve, northern and urban communities alike struggle for safe, affordable housing, with clean drinking water and the comfort of a room or a bed. Many Indigenous people are packed tightly in the extreme corners of our territories while the moose, deer, muskrat and owl are exiled all together. This unfolds as Trudeau, in another replica — this time of this father's buckskin fringe jacket — paddles towards the camera, killing the river in his wake.

The fire next time

South of the medicine line, that increasingly militarized and foreign border, residents of Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock burned their tipis and other shelters on the eve of their removal and arrest. To the aghast non-Indigenous onlookers this appeared reckless.

But Indigenous Rising Media explained that "based on the behaviour of the law enforcement in the past, who during raids have broken and thrown away sacred items and who have shown disregard and horrible disrespect to tipis and sacred dwellings, it is best to burn these sacred structures instead of having them desecrated by Morton County and North Dakota law enforcement."

A burned tipi is seen in the recently closed Oceti Sakowin camp before the police raid in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S., February 23, 2017. (REUTERS/Stephen Yang - RTS102KE)

This was the honourable send-off to temporary homes that provided warmth and safety, undeserving of a fate in the hands of clumsy invaders. The Lakota and their allies sought to avoid the careless destruction of this ceremonial presence. The soil, the fire and the ashes are much deeper than symbols — they are teachings, attachments, memories and resurgence.

There is a truth about many Indigenous homes, inaccessible to Canadians despite the poking and prodding. The smouldering remains, that broken down car in the front lawn, toys scattered across the road: each are manifestations of our love in disarray. They are symbols of Indigenous resourcefulness, testaments to endurance against the odds and in some cases, pride.

Homeland security

There have always been divergent stories of "home" in Canada. Mythic, pluralistic Glowing Hearts, on one hand, oppressive Home on Native land, on the other.

Indigenous cultures, art and people do not exist for entertainment.

In the former, symbols dominate: empty wigwams and tipis because they don't speak back to paternalism; sacred stories removed from their keepers to prevent carrying the memories of our worlds into the future; and Indigenous peoples themselves as tokens because tokens offer consent. 

In the latter story, the notion of home is one of appropriation, poison and exile, yet sacred all the same because Indigenous realities are not so easily excused or obscured. Indigenous cultures, art and people do not exist for entertainment or gross domestic product nor to soothe reconciliatory anxiety.

Beyond the pretense of inclusion, our resistance remains and our lands, bodies and homes are worthy of care; a galaxy that colonization will never appropriate or erase.

Home is carried on our backs and in our hearts.


Erica Violet is Nēhiyaw from inner city Saskatoon and Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Gchi’mnissing. They are writers, students and educators.