Colonization, resistance and popular culture
From Katherena Vermette’s graphic novel A Girl Called Echo
On January 7, 2019, the RCMP raided the Gidimt’en checkpoint and the Unist’ot’en blockade that was set up to protect traditional Wet’suwet’en territory from those wanting to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline through their territory. Days later, both the prime minister and the premier of British Columbia offered tepid “support” for the right to protest but both invoked the rule of law as being of primary importance. BC premier John Horgan’s statement showed a particular lack of understanding of hereditary systems of Indigenous governance. Horgan referred to, “the historic band council model” and “the emerging hereditary model.” To suggest that the hereditary system is “emerging” shows a surprising amount of ignorance for a premier of British Columbia. So much so that the premier’s office had to walk back his statement. The next day, the Office of the Premier had to offer a “Clarification of remarks regarding the events in Unis’tot’en [sic] territory.” The clarification noted that, “The premier’s comments regarding the hereditary model were intended to refer to the traditional, long-standing and now ‘re-emerging hereditary model,’ in contrast to the Indian Act band council model imposed in the 19th century.” Essentially, the exact opposite of what Horgan actually said. That lack of knowledge is not limited to Horgan, much of the discourse around the Wet’suwet’en resistance to the pipeline shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Indigenous history.
There is no real excuse for such misunderstandings. There is a rich tradition of Indigenous storytelling and much of it is available to all of us through popular culture. For those wishing to be more informed about the context in which this current struggle is taking place film is a good place to start. Any crash course on the Indigenous history of resistance would have to start with Alanis Obomsawin’s film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, an awardwinning documentary about the Oka Crisis in 1990. Almost any film by Obomsawin would serve as both a history and a warning about colonial settler governments’ use of force against First Nations. Her earlier 1984 film, Incident at Restigouche, documented raids of the Restigouche Reserve by the Quebec Provincial Police Force in an attempt to force the Mi’kmaq to follow new provincial mandates around salmon fishing. Jeff Barnaby, the director of 2013 Rhymes for Young Ghouls – another must see film – calls Incident inspirational, “That documentary encapsulated the idea of films being a form of social protest for me…. It started there with that film.” The RCMP raid into Wet’suwet’en territory in the name of LNG is a reoccurring story within colonialism. It is repeated from Restigouche to Oka to Wet’suwet’en and it is really the story of the State using colonial dispossession of traditional land to aid capitalist accumulation. The films listed above help situate contemporary issues within a historic context.
Graphic novels are another way into the history of both colonial violence and the resistance against it and any of the graphic novels by David Alexander Robertson are a good place to start. From his 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga series (Books 1-4), which follows the story of an Aboriginal family through three centuries and seven generations, to Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. Robertson gears his graphic novels towards a teen audience but they are perfect for readers of all ages wanting to understand issues between Indigenous and non- Indigenous peoples. A classic in the field is Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, which documents Indigenous resistance across North and South America. There is also a new series written by Metis poet, filmmaker, and award-winning author Katherena Vermette; A Girl Called Echo series deals with both contemporary and historical issues by having the main character, Echo, slip between the past and present. Through this device the series tells both Echo’s story in the present and shows the history of the Pemmican Wars and the Red River Resistance from a Metis perspective.
It is perhaps naïve to assume that Premier Horgan or Prime Minister Trudeau are simply misunderstanding the history of Indigenous people. It is more realistic to frame our political leaders as willfully ignorant. But, that does not mean that we have to be. Simply watching a film … or reading a comic will not bring about reconciliation on its own. However, it is a much needed start.
John-Henry Harter lectures in history and labour studies at Simon Fraser University. He has published in the journals Labour/ Le Travail, Popular Culture Review, The Otter, and Active History. He writes on class, the environment and popular culture when not consuming too much coffee and TV. @JohnHenryHarter.