Bringing Fragments Together:
John Barton in Conversation
with Siku Allooloo

Siku Allooloo

In her creative nonfiction piece, "Caribou People," which appears in Indigenous Perspectives, Siku Allooloo describes the distress and resolve that Indigenous people living in the north feel as climate change and resource extraction threaten to overwhelm their land and way of life. Siku Allooloo is an Inuit/Haitian Taino writer and community builder from Denendeh (N.W.T.). She holds a ba in Anthropology and Indigenous Studies from the University of Victoria and is the winner of Briarpatch Magazine's 2016 creative nonfiction contest. Her other work has appeared in The Guardian, Truthout, The Northern Journal, NationsRising, Rabble, and The Winter We Danced.

At the beginning of "Caribou People," you describe the pleasure that you share with two other Inuit women while gorging on chunks of beautifully roasted caribou or tuktu, "which carried [the three of you] to an innate world. Somewhere primal, dark. Endless." Later on, you express despair at the declining caribou herds whose numbers, in the case of the Bathurst Herd, have plummeted from the hundreds of thousands to 15,000 in less than twenty-five years. The contrast between the pleasure felt and the alarm expressed is very stark. Can you expand on the very real and consequent emotional tear that this contrast makes apparent?

It's the same as the incomprehensible heartache and confusion expressed later by children who just lost a parent and are wondering how they can exist without someone who created and sustains them. Both the children and we as caribou people are trying to come to terms with the bleakness of this unprecedented new reality, trying to make sense of what it means for us to lose something so inherent and beloved and which is absolutely crucial to our identity. The contrast in imagery is stark because the reality is stark: we are at a point where something that has always been constant and timeless is now at the end of its line, and our world is forced to change.

As readers will hopefully gather, it's the same skipping record Indigenous peoples have lived through since the first colonial ships arrived and are continually overcoming to this day. Every time we've been forced down to a scrap of land, criminalized and incarcerated within our own territories; every time our children and our givers of life have been kidnapped/abused/murdered, our land and water contaminated; every time we come up against the inescapable culture of racism, exploitation and gender violence—and meet all without the ability to obtain retribution—we feel the shock, the pain, the fury. We push through it, adapt, and find new ways to continue living our culture.  We do our best to bring fragments forward while still fighting to protect the earth and ourselves, but the pain of what's been severed is always immense. In "Caribou People," I wanted to evoke how real and vivid our sense of connection truly is because I think this is often entirely lost on non-Indigenous people. Inherent connection to land, culture, spirituality, non-human relations, and future generations is not some enigmatic, intangible thing that we just throw around for argument's sake. It is real, and it persists.

The stark contrast is meant as a wakeup call, and not simply in terms of Indigenous struggles. It is meant as a mirror to the rest of the world of the reality we all face with the impending global climate crisis. It is a message of compassion and preparation for very difficult times ahead, from those who have survived many unthinkable losses.

I'm struck by the difference between the "innate world" of the Inuit and the "romantic" vision of the north that, as you say, most Canadians living somewhere else entertain. I suspect that the latter are even deluded enough to think what they envision comes close to approximating (or appropriating…?) the former's profound cosmology of place. What do you think is required to disabuse southerners of their naivety or ignorance? Do you think doing so would help promote fundamental change?

Thank you for asking this question—I think it's a blind spot, but it is indeed appropriation, and erasure. The north is overwhelmingly misperceived as ‘the final frontier' or as an Arctic sort of "wild west." People are mystified by the beauty and the extreme contrasts it offers to so much of what they know, which is understandable, as I think that is human nature. But, in addition to the lucrative career prospects, they want the north's exoticism—the attire, the aesthetic, the off-the-beaten-track lifestyle, and the experience of carving something out for themselves from the rawness of materials—as in creating a new sense of identity and place out of nothing, and often while simultaneously appropriating Indigenous material culture. They don't realize that this erases the longstanding presence of peoples and ways of life that are still very much alive and dependent on the vitality of this land. This kind of romanticism, naivety, and frankly, colonialism, makes invisible the exploitation that Indigenous peoples and territories have endured at the hands of Canadian governments, industry, and society, which we are still enduring—and resisting.

A lot of the time, I feel like newcomers want automatic access to everything that we are (what we make, what we know, what we do, what we hold on to) so that they can absorb it into themselves. In more generous times I can imagine this as coming from an urge to fill some kind of void, but I have to dig really deep to find that empathy because mostly I am irritated by the entitlement and intrusiveness, and by the fact that we must continually endure that too. Inuit have a story about a being who kills humans and puts on their skin and clothing and impersonates them in order to gain proximity to other victims. I often feel like that entitled expectation of access is similar, like them wanting to wear our skin. I just want to tell them to wear their own skin. You can experience life and develop meaningful connections with us while being fully yourself. We are not interested in colonizing you.

I must say there are a lot of very wonderful people not indigenous to the north who have established roots here and become truly cherished, valuable members of our communities. Many of them are my friends and have managed to find a balance in living in relationship to us and to the land as fully who they are, with integrity, respect, generosity, and good spirit. I feel like they live the intention that our elders envisioned for the treaties: living together in a good way, mutual autonomy and respect, reciprocity, sharing. They demonstrate that there are ways to live a good life here that does not assume dominance, that respects Indigenous authority, and that seeks balance for the well-being of our whole community.

I would say what is needed to remedy the ignorance and colonial erasure in the north is the same as needed elsewhere throughout the country: the return of stolen land and restoration of Indigenous governance; real education about history, systemic violence and anti-oppression; widespread accountability for non-colonial ways of being; concerted effort to minimize the destruction that humans have wrought on the planet. It requires respect for Indigenous peoples as more then material or cultural relics that embellish the backdrop of a frontier fantasy. It means taking direction from us as to how to live in integrity and self-awareness in relationship to the land and everything that exists here. It absolutely requires engagement with reality, which means seeing that the land is under attack, our ability to sustain ourselves is in serious jeopardy, and that though we are strong, beautiful, resilient people, our lives and powers of autonomy are still very much constrained by the grip of colonial domination, which non-Indigenous people benefit from directly, albeit however unwittingly. I truly believe that being grounded in reality gives solid footing to stand on, no matter who you are. I think the ignorance and romanticism for many non-native people might stem from a sense of aimlessness and desire to establish an authentic connection to place. If non-Indigenous people were to rise to the occasion by accepting their colonial history and present position in relationship to Indigenous peoples and the planet and work toward decolonizing, it would finally reveal to them an authentic connection to place. That would create something substantive, a bit of solid ground from which our respective peoples can communicate and organize effective change.

I find myself ruminating on and discovering ways to "inhabit" the phrase "authentic connection to place." To me, "authentic" suggests "actual," even "clear." When it comes to the north (and the land in general), what would you like non-Indigenous peoples to see?  How do you feel such "seeing" would change them and the circumstances in which you and other Caribou people live?

I think of "authentic" as "genuine," "accurate," or in other words, "real." In this 150th year anniversary of Canada, it is fitting that we discuss the presence of non-Indigenous peoples in terms of an accurate location, both physically and historically. Canada's narrative of nation building is a frontier fantasy: civilized Europeans discovered an empty land inhabited by backward, unevolved savages and managed, by much industriousness and perseverance, to subdue the harshness of the land and cold and savages, and to erect a new civilization. In territories covered by Treaties 1–11, the narrative depicts the wilful surrender of land in exchange for a few dollars and supplies and protection of the Crown—but these have been proved fraudulent by oral accounts as well as legally in the court (as happened in Denendeh with Treaties 8 and 11). Agreements for mutually autonomous coexistence were made in several territories, but Indigenous nations never surrendered our land and livelihood in exchange for citizenship in an exploitive society that continually seeks to annihilate us and everything we live for! Not to mention British Columbia, which is almost entirely under illegal occupation even by Canadian/European standards, as those lands were never "acquired" by treaties.

As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, we cannot deny that what is being held up are the violent means by which it gained its existence: the smallpox blankets given out as gifts of genocide to Indigenous communities; the launch of misogyny and gender violence that shattered our societies; the starvation and intimidation tactics used to coerce signatures in land grabs; the 150,000 children forcibly stolen by residential schools, the circulation of known pedophiles throughout those schools; the criminalization of our spiritual practices and ceremonies; the targeted policing of our communities and maintenance of an apartheid system (which was the express reason Canada's national police force was created in the first place); and so much more, which all made way for the outright theft of our territories. And to top it off, the erasure of all of this from public consciousness by colonial narrative framing, which is why the majority of Canadians are still grossly unaware of this historical reality, and why they misunderstand Indigenous movements to protect the sources of life that we have left and reassert our autonomy. It is a horrifying reality and people are resistant to engaging it, which means they are resistant to seeing themselves or Indigenous peoples or this country in a true light. Fundamental change cannot be made if people cling to denial. The national narrative that most Canadians are immersed in is not a true account of identity or history or place, so it cannot possibly provide an authentic grounding in this land or in relationship to Indigenous peoples, which many are finally becoming aware of as having to somehow reconcile.

So, to me, a starting point must necessarily entail a great amount of humility—to be capable of understanding that the land is alive and is a powerful force that human beings are at the behest of (not in domination over); that Canada is an illegal occupying entity on what are still Indigenous lands; that Indigenous peoples are the rightful authority in our territories; that there is nothing "natural" or apolitical about the accumulation of white supremacy or colonial domination; that non-Indigenous peoples have a long way to go in taking responsibility for perpetuating colonial dynamics; and that accountability for rectifying the damage is as much individual as it is systemic. We can tear down an exploitive system (that indeed, exploits all of us) by building up our own humanity.

It is always refreshing when I connect with a non-Indigenous person who is upfront and self-aware about their social location and history, and takes initiative in wanting to work in non-colonial ways. I appreciate them very much and am happy to build relationships with them because I feel like they are willing to embody honesty, respectfulness, and accountability, which means that there is room in the relationship for my honest and necessarily no-bullshit perspective. Neither of us has all the answers, but we have the ability to build toward something healthy and transformative alongside one another because of this basis. What I mean by this finally establishing an authentic connection to place for non-Indigenous peoples is not that they will become like us (as in, indigenous to this land), but that they will become more authentically themselves—human beings who have ended up on Indigenous lands by way of a terrible history, whose presence continues to benefit from colonial exploitation, and who have a responsibility to enact their power to dismantle oppressive systems and ways of being in support of Indigenous resurgence, vitality and freedom, as well as their own sense of humanity.

What you will find is that Indigenous communities in the north are continually receptive to this kind of engagement and are often willing to work with it. Just be mindful of tempering your expectations. We have our own priorities and have given much already, and not all of us are willing to open more doors at this point. In this case, I suggest honouring your authentic connection to present and place by working to dismantle colonial ways of being in your own life, relationships with others, and workplace.

You convincingly expose how wealth, even today, is colonialism's ultimate goal. How would you define "wealth"—material or otherwise—from an Inuit perspective?

From my own little view as an Inuk woman and Dene family member, I would say wealth is being able to exist in full expression of who we are without threat of harm or domination. It is being nourished by our ancestral foods and medicines and cultures. Wealth is intimacy and wellness in relationships, autonomy, being able to grow more deeply in connection to the land and to this life through our practices and knowledge systems. It is being able to come back together and to invest future generations with vitality, belonging and strength, to know that they have everything they need to flourish and follow a good path on this earth. Wealth is generosity, respect, knowing your place in the world, and taking care of one another.

You say "If there is any way of recuperating a sense of humanity, we need to engage with the reality of everything we are up against." For those readers who have not had the opportunity yet of reading "Caribou People," what do you mean by engagement for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike?

By this I mean to look with open eyes at the state of the planet and the living conditions of the majority of all living beings. Look at the unbearable cost that colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy are wreaking on everyone and everything on the planet, and which now threaten our very existence. If we do not step into action to stop exploiting the earth and all marginalized people, there will be a great price to pay, by all of us. Shut down the tar sands. Stop building pipelines, mines, and dams. Start following the leadership of Indigenous women, youth, elders, trans, and two-spirit people who speak for the land, water, animals, and people. Hold your perpetrators of violence and discrimination accountable. Work to eradicate violence and discrimination. Return land and governance to Indigenous people. Start seeking your own spiritual, emotional, mental and physical growth as human beings in relationship to this earth and to the people of it. Build meaningful relationships with Indigenous and other marginalized people and be accountable to them. Use your gifts and resources to create opportunities in place of barriers. Learn to dismantle exploitive ways of being. Respect that the resurgence of Indigenous cultures and practices is necessarily for the revitalization of our communities—not an open door for re-appropriation. Respect boundaries. Extend respect despite conflicting emotions, perspectives, positions, and means of organizing. Keep working at it, especially when the times get hard. Be humbled by the interconnection of all living things, and affirm life.

 

John Barton

John Barton

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