During the recent Prosperity Mine hearings in British Columbia, an indigenous spiritual leader, Cecil Grinder, appeared with a painted face. What should one read into this body language? Did he mean to strike the fear of violence into non-indigenous hearts?
Those unfamiliar with the indigenous customs of the Pacific Shelf might jump to the conclusion that this was “war-paint”, as did at least one journalist. To be fair, she was probably only putting into words what others may have been thinking. Most of us know Hollywood Indian conventions better than we do local customs. Yet this impression would be mistaken.
Outsiders who might be more familiar with certain controversies in the United States, or about the current “Black Pete” controversy in Europe, may imagine on a first impression that this was some form of “black face” attempt to link the struggle of indigenous Peoples in Canada with those of former African slaves or those of former African colonies. The pervasiveness of American culture makes the template of African-American oppression the most familiar paradigm almost everywhere. This impression also would be mistaken. Which is not to say that one cannot draw useful parallels between the practice of colonialism in British Columbia as compared to other places.
More fruitfully, one might suppose Cecil’s demonstration was the expression of a felt need to show in a most visible way that local indigenous cultures are alive, well and all around. These are not all art and museum pieces but living social entities with a long history. Demonstrations like Cecil’s remind us of a fact that is awkward for everyone in Canada. It is awkward partly because it is not of anyone’s choosing and partly because no one is quite sure how to proceed from here. The awkward fact is that most of us are still guests in an unresolved relationship with our host communities. Usually there is an invisible wall of ignorance that separates us. However, when a social entity like Canada, (one with the de facto power to be dishonorably or unthinkingly oppressive,) forgets the true state of its relationship with any indigenous People it is hurtful of our neighbours and hosts. Although this is an awkward fact, indeed by the virtue of it being an awkward fact, it is necessary from time to time to be reminded of it. And sometimes it is more necessary that others. When our neighbours are suffering or fearing for their future viability, it weakens the whole community. For that reason we should be grateful to Cecil for taking the risk involved in this demonstration.
If we were to explain what is implicit in this demonstration, what can a beginner’s mind observe? All mistakes in interpretation below are mine alone, either from ignorance or a lack of adequate rhetorical skill. Cecil blackened one side of his face, painted red on the other and placed some blue in the middle. Whatever is represented by blue is caught between the red and the black.
Since hearings on the Prosperity Mine ultimately involve the fate of Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) and the Taseko River watershed, we might safely conclude that this blue symbolizes water. This is an invitation to see the issues from the perspective of a respect for the value of clean water. Clean water and a near at hand supply of fish thriving without the need of human intervention are things difficult to value…until you do not have them… then they are invaluable. More generally, the cost and risks of this mine will be borne mostly by the Tsilhqot’in and Secwepemc while most of the rewards will be reaped by non-residents comparatively little affected by the risks. Moreover, all the rewards would be reaped in the present while all the costs will be borne by our children. This is the very essence of injustice on two counts.
What about black? When a Tsilhqot’in war party killed 14 settlers to prevent the deliberate introduction of smallpox to indigenous residents along the Homathko River in spring 1864, at least one of its members was described as having blackened his face. In 1858, the Journal at the HBC’s Fort Alexandria noted natives with blackened faces hiding nearby. Those seem to have been Secwepemc men from Williams Lake tracking miners from the San Jose River. More generally, blackening the face was customary among various Pacific Northwest Peoples when engaged in “war.” It signals a willingness to confront and defeat monstrous bad spirits by any means necessary. If Cecil’s face had been only blackened, then we might have concluded that he was in some sense “at war” and caution might have been an appropriate response. But this demonstration was not meant to intimidate, only to have the issues framed in a way that would take account of values too easily dismissed by the usual dominant forces.
What about red? Red is the most powerful colour associated with good spirits: life, health, hope, assistance from the ancestors and so on. It is for this reason that indigenous Peoples throughout the Pacific Shelf put out red makers everywhere during the smallpox epidemics of 1862. In one village every dwelling was said to have been marked with red. Like smudging or laying down tobacco to create the sense of a sacred moment, it is an ancient custom that an observant person can see honored in many places. The trail marking the path to the 2013 Lhatsassin Memorial Day was marked with red. Sometimes people wear red at funerals. It is a call for good spirits to come and show the way.
At the very first official meeting between the Tsilhqot’in People and agents for the British Crown (in the afternoon of July 20, 1864,) an observer said the Tsilhqot’in “…were all finely painted for the occasion.” Red would have been predominant in that demonstration. It conveyed on that occasion a positive sign of hope for a beneficial relationship, of reaching out with an outstretched hand extending back to the ancestors and beyond to future generations. That hope soon was dashed when the Crown tricked the Tsilhqot’in using invitations to sacred pipe ceremonies to ambush delegates to peace conferences, and then to martyr several Tsilhqot’in as an instructive example of what would happen to those who resisted the imposition of English law and British institutions. The unfortunate choices made then are still with us today. One can see them everywhere underlying the Prosperity Mine debate and in the Tsilhqot’in title case. We need to transcend the remnants and legacies of this colonial past. But we have not done it yet and, in the meantime, it is still the source of much pain and misunderstanding.
Yet the red on Cecil’s face carries the same message as expressed by the Tsilhqot’in in 1864: of hope for a positive future and of a reaching out to inspire us to search for a good path guided by the beneficial spirit of the ancestors and the needs of future generations. We can start by breaking down the invisible wall of ignorance. Even though our indigenous neighbours have every moral right to do us harm for the damage our social entity has done to them in the past, all the signs are that they would really prefer to find some common ground putting all our children in a strong place for the future.
It is in the same spirit that the Tsilhqot’in have invited people to wear something red during the mass dance ceremony planned for Dec. 13, 11:30am. People will gather at the Vancouver Art Gallery and make the short walk for the building housing the offices of Taskeo Mines, the proponents of the Prosperity Mine. For details see the website: ceremonyflashmob.wix.com/dec13.
Red is associated with the good spirits that are the life-blood of any community. Good spirits promote truth, honor and justice. Canada loses nothing by delaying development of the copper and gold mineral deposits in Tsilhqot’in territory. These deposits do not decay with time. Indeed, they are likely to gain in value over time. It is like having money in the bank while gaining the goodwill of your neighbors and retaining the potential for other less destructive endeavors. While it is always better to have done the right thing at first, there is no better time than the present to begin taking that path.
An account of the origins of the Tsilhqot’in War in the smallpox epidemics of 1862, and an extensive proof showing that settlers on the Pacific Shelf spread the disease deliberately as an aid to seizing native territories without treaties and for dispossessing the indigenous Peoples of their resources can be found in The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific. Plus the Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance. It is available for order at shawnswanky.com, at Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or by request to shawnswanky.com from your local bookstore.