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We collectively create fictions – knowing they are fictions, knowing they represent only one side of reality – to create our social world. So there is power in choosing which story is ours

Chenae Bullock of the Shinnecock Indian Nation holds water at a sunrise ceremony in New York on Oct. 10, which was both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S.YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Harold R. Johnson, who died in February, was a lawyer, award-winning writer and member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. His final book, The Power of Story: On Truth, the Trickster, and New Fictions for a New Era, which recounts a gathering with a group of people representing diverse cultures and faiths regarding the role and power of storytelling in human life, is out now.

How did we get here?

Yeah, I know, you came by boat this afternoon.

I’m talking about how we got to this place in history. What thread did we follow?

We collectively create stories, fictions, knowing they are fictions, knowing they represent only one version of reality, and we use these stories to create our social world. We just make shit up.

In his wonderful first book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explains that we create fictions to facilitate society. After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, humans began to experiment with agriculture only about 10,000 years ago. We had previously governed our societies in groups of no more than 100 or 150 people, through familial relationships and what [the author] calls gossip – I think this word means something different than the important information-sharing he’s talking about. But agricultural societies were much larger and needed a bigger story to hold them together. So we invented religion.

God, Adam and Eve as shown in an 18th-century bible.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This argument accounts for the history of the last few thousand years, during which we see religion facilitate authority. God’s word was not to be questioned. The interpreters of God’s word assumed God’s authority, and so society was governed by the priest class. Until only a couple of centuries ago, monarchs claimed to rule as direct descendants of Adam, the first man. They claimed that God’s grant to Adam of dominion over the world was passed down to them through lineage. People had to believe the Genesis story in order to accept the monarch story. Each story was built upon previous stories.

We no longer accept that monarchs have God’s permission to rule. That story changed. Prior to stumbling upon the Americas, European people lived in feudal systems that were rigidly hierarchical and highly authoritarian. The system wasn’t questioned because no one imagined a different way of being. To those people, hierarchy and authority were natural, normal and necessary. When they learned, through people like John Locke, that in the Americas, people lived without monarchs, without kings and princes and courts and judges and force, it blew their minds. They began to imagine for themselves a society without kings and princes.

It was a dangerous time. A world order was beginning to collapse. People started to imagine anarchy, that they could live without authority. Then authority was saved by Locke. He could see that the monarchy had to be abandoned, that the story supporting it had unwound. But his social order could be saved through a new story. In his Two Treatises of Government, which throughout his life he denied writing, only becoming known as its author after his death, Locke defends his social order by viciously attacking American Indigenous peoples. Two Treatises of Government is one of the most racist things I have ever read. Yet despite its blatant racism and complete fabrications, that work became the heart of modern Western society. It forms the basis of the United States Constitution.

There is a story going around about how we got to be here, collectively, in this place in history. The story tells us Europeans came to Turtle Island and colonized the original inhabitants – that they destroyed our culture, eradicated our language – removed us from the land and dispossessed us of our relationship with the Creator. The colonization story informs most of what people have to say about Indigenous peoples. It is our rallying cry. It is what we resist.

A 1728 etching shows Christopher Columbus arriving at Hispaniola, the island now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In the background, Indigenous women run away.Library of Congress

Let me tell you a variation of the colonization story, with some different details included.

The reason Christopher Columbus went looking for India was because he wanted a new trade route to perfume and spices. The trade route in existence from China and India to the Europe of his time traversed the Middle East. This was a few hundred years after the Crusades, and the Europeans had made a lot of enemies there – enemies that taxed the caravans and drove up the prices.

Europe really isn’t a continent. It is not separate from Asia. The division was created by Genghis Khan. Europe is the portion of the larger continent that Khan did not want. There was nothing there. All the wealth was in India and China.

What we now refer to as Europe had no advanced technology, no medicine, no science and no art. It had been devastated by the bubonic plague and its population was poor and dirty.

Even wealthy Europeans who could afford meat did not have technology to preserve it. That’s why they wanted spices. If you have to eat old meat, spices make it palatable.

European custom at the time did not include bathing. They had two baths in their life – once when they were born and again when they died. When a population stinks, perfume becomes important. So, the main reason Europeans stumbled upon the Americas in search of perfume and spice is because they stank and their food was rotten and tasted bad.

A Columbus statue in Madrid.Paul Hanna/Reuters

I see a few people squirming. It’s not comfortable to hear negative stories about your history. We know how you feel. Negative stories about Indigenous people have been told to us for a long time, about how we were backward and childish and worshipped trees and rocks and needed Europeans to save us. The history that you are familiar with is one that has been sanitized for your benefit. It’s your background story. It’s told that way to make you feel good about yourself. What I am about to tell you is going to challenge that version. It’s okay, you can hear it. You don’t have to feel bad. It’s just a story.

European societal structures were rigidly hierarchical. They had a lord in a castle at the apex and serfs at the bottom. Land was held in tenure. If you farmed this plot of land, it was because your father had farmed it, and his father had farmed it before him. They hadn’t imagined ownership yet. That was to come. Everyone in that social structure had a place. You were born into your place and remained there throughout your life. The lowest people in the feudal system were lordless men. These were outlaws hiding in the forest, or merchants who walked between villages with packsacks filled with pots and pans.

When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, he found food and medicines. Think about that picture of the first Thanksgiving. We are shown black-hatted Pilgrims and a table stacked with food – corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, turnips, tomatoes and turkey. All that food was American food, including the turkey. None of it was known in Europe, where wheat, oats and barley were primarily grown.

In the Thanksgiving picture, the Pilgrims share their bountiful harvest with the original inhabitants. The story it tried to tell is a perversion. It was the Aboriginal peoples who shared their food with the Pilgrims to keep them from starving. The Pilgrims had come to the Americas because they did not have a place in Europe. They were outcasts who needed our help.

The very act of thanksgiving was a theft of Aboriginal culture. The Lakota wopila is a thanksgiving in which a person has a ceremony, then sponsors a feast and a giveaway. By being generous and giving gifts, the person expresses their thanks to the Creator. The potlatches celebrated on the West Coast is another form of thanksgiving that involved feasting and gift-giving.

The Lakota wopila tradition, which I follow, can occur at any time of the year. Whenever I feel like giving thanks, I can sponsor a feast and a giveaway. To agricultural societies, like our relatives in the east, the Iroquois, and others, thanksgiving ceremonies reasonably occur in the autumn after a harvest. That major holiday in the Americas now celebrated by nearly everyone, not just farmers, is an idea borrowed from Aboriginal peoples.

Bowls of food are prepared at a potlatch in Alert Bay, B.C., circa 1912.City of Vancouver Archives

When this new healthy food that we shared with the Pilgrims was taken back to Europe, it helped to cause an increase in population. Remember, their numbers had been severely reduced by the Black Death. New medicines from the Americas alleviated illness and pain. Europe began to grow and prosper. Wealth from the Americas was transferred back to Europe on ships loaded with gold. Now, keep in mind who had come to the Americas. Those tied to their castles couldn’t leave, and those tied by tenure to the land couldn’t leave. That left the outlaws, the outcasts and the merchants. When this newly wealthy class returned to Europe, they had more money than the monarchs. The kings and princes and lords had been involved in continuous wars with each other for centuries, and now their treasuries were empty.

So, some of the lowest class of people became the richest, and the feudal system was turned upside down. This new wealthy class didn’t own any land in Europe. Nobody did, because land was not owned. It was held in tenure. But when you have money, you can change the rules. Private ownership allowed the new rich to purchase land. They didn’t buy it from the tenured tenants. They bought it from the lords, who were broke and needed money to refill their depleted treasuries. It didn’t take much. They just changed the story about tenure and property. The philosophers and political thinkers of the time, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and James Harrington, helped the process along by making up theories of private property.

The lords kicked the tenants out and sold the land because, in the new property story, the lords owned the land. The tenants didn’t have anywhere to go, so they immigrated to the Americas.

Five hundred years after Columbus, his Europe and the feudal system he came from has been obliterated. It has completely collapsed. Nothing of it remains.

So now we have powerful stories about private property, and we forget that these are recent stories, the power of story newly created, that we just made them up. These stories about private property are so powerful that a farmer in Saskatchewan was able to get away with killing a young Indigenous man because the jury at his trial believed the defence-of-private-property story.

I live on the land here. That cabin behind us, me and my wife built it by ourselves. I fish and trap and gather from the forest. I know my relationship with the Earth. I participate in ceremonies that celebrate and communicate with the Creator. Aboriginal languages are still spoken here and are recovering. We’ve been through some rough times, but we know who we are, where we came from, and our place and purpose on this planet.

So, who colonized whom? It seems to me that we did more to change the European than the European did to change us.


Riot police spray water cannons on Oct. 10 at Mapuche protesters in Santiago, the capital of Chile – which, like the United States, observes Columbus Day as a public holidayMARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

In Newton, Mass., Oct. 10 was a day for tribes from across the Americas to share their cultures. Dancers from the groups Pumawari Tusuy get ready for the event; Terry Goedel performs a hoop dance. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

What I have just told you is just another version of the colonization story. Which do you prefer: the one where Aboriginal people are victims, where we were unfairly made to change and adapt to the standards of the invader, or the version that says we made them who they are? Neither version is absolutely true. No story can be. You get to choose which one you will adopt, which version will you tell yourself, tell your children and tell your grandchildren.

We’ve struggled with the dominant story the colonizer has been telling us about our place here. In that story, Canada is a sovereign nation and our people are not. We call ourselves First Nations peoples, but at law, both domestic and international, we lack the capacity of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is just a story. A man named Francisco de Vitoria made it up around 1532.

Forty years after Columbus landed, the Spanish bragged that they had already killed more than 12 million Aboriginal people. The rest of Europe was disgusted with them. There was a debate going on as to whether or not we were humans. It was a serious question with serious consequences. If we were in fact human, then their law precluded them from taking our stuff. If we were not human, they were free to discover and keep all our lands and belongings. Pope Paul III settled the matter in 1537 with a papal bull that declared we were humans and we had a right to keep our stuff.

In 1532, when Vitoria gave his speeches on making war on the Indians, the question of our humanity was still open. He came up with the idea of sovereignty just in case we were humans after all. He defined sovereignty by looking at the European states in existence at the time. His definition of sovereignty is simply a description of the European nation state of his day. He said that if a state had a defined territory, exclusive occupation of that territory, and had a prince – then it was sovereign. If it didn’t have those attributes – it wasn’t. Of course, his definition excluded Aboriginal peoples’ relationship to the land, and we were therefore deemed not to be sovereign states. Since we were not sovereign, they could take our stuff, whether or not we were human.

First Nations people, imagined in a 1916 drawing, look at the cross erected by Jacques Cartier to claim Quebec for France in 1534, not long after Francisco de Vitoria's speech on sovereignty.Library and Archives Canada

Stories are powerful. Vitoria didn’t even write this one down. We know about it because students in attendance at his lectures took notes. The story had tremendous power because it defined something that hadn’t been defined before. Never mind that it was completely made up – that it was pure fiction – it caught on.

In 1580, the king of Sweden realized that he claimed all of Sweden but did not occupy the northern portion. Occupation was suddenly important. It was an element of this new thing called sovereignty. So, he asked people from Finland to come to northern Sweden and occupy it on his behalf. He promised them free land and no taxes for six years.

The newcomers practised swidden agriculture. They chopped down the forest and burned the trees, thereby putting nutrients into the soil. They did not have enough rye – the only seed they brought with them – the first year, and had to wait until the second year before they could eat their crop. They relied upon hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering to survive and became known as the Forest Finns. They lived communally, worked together and helped each other. They made their living from the land through agriculture and keeping a few animals, sheep and cows, and continued to fish, trap, hunt and gather from the surrounding forest. They made their money by making and selling guns. The soil there contains a lot of iron and grass brings up the iron, which is deposited on its stems and leaves. The Forest Finns gathered the grasses that grow in marshes. They burned the grass and smelted the iron.

I know about the Forest Finns because they are my father’s ancestors. He was born in Sweden in 1898. The sovereignty story is part of his story.

My father’s father, John Olaf Jonsson, was convinced to move to Canada because of that same sovereignty story. Canada claimed this land from coast to coast but did not sufficiently occupy the prairies. Without occupation and clear sovereign title, there was a risk the Americans would move in and take it for themselves. So, Canada enticed Europeans to come and settle the prairies on its behalf with promises of almost-free land and opportunities. My grandfather immigrated to southern Saskatchewan in 1907 and was granted a homestead on a half section of land.

Various Indigenous flags fly at a 2014 protest at the Winnipeg legislature.Lyle Stafford/the Globe and Mail

The irony of this story is that I sometimes hear Aboriginal people adamantly argue that we are sovereign – that we are sovereign states – that we are nations. We cannot be sovereign. We can never be sovereign. Sovereignty means: except Aboriginal peoples. The concept was created to exclude us.

Sovereignty might be a made-up story, but it is a powerful one. Not only is it responsible for mass migrations, it is responsible for horrendous acts of domination, of murder, rape and pillaging, of dispossession and subjugation. Vitoria’s little story has caused wars. It has become the basis of international law. The story he made up has led to the insane belief in nationalism. It is the story relied upon by our oppressors to validate their occupation of our territory. But despite its overwhelming acceptance by our oppressors and even by our own people, sovereignty is nothing but a made-up story. It’s an example of how powerful stories are, a reminder that we must be careful of the stories that we tell. We don’t know what impact they might have 500 years in the future.

As an Indigenous person, I do not rely upon Vitoria’s story to understand my place. I have my own understanding of my relationship here. My father was a Swede and my mother was Nehithaw. My Indigenous ancestors, the ones I identify with most strongly, lived upon this land. When they died, their bodies were placed upon scaffolds, wrapped tightly in buffalo robes. The birds ate at them, the scaffolds rotted and fell down, the worms took pieces of my ancestors down into the earth. My ancestors’ atoms are in the land. The plants reached down with their roots and took up those atoms and brought them back to the surface. Deer, rabbits and moose ate those plants, and my ancestors’ atoms are in those animals. My ancestors’ atoms are in the berries and mushrooms and medicines I gather. When I eat those berries and the meat of the animals, my ancestors’ atoms are in me. When I die, I will be buried, and I will go back to the earth, the worms will eat me and spread my atoms, and the cycle will repeat itself.

I do not say that we are sovereign. I do not say that the land belongs to us, because to do so would be to buy into the fiction of property. Instead, I say, I belong here. I belong to the land. I am the land. I am this place.

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