Tipis on Mars: Considering Canada’s Cultural Appropriation Controversy Through Futures Studies

Upon learning of Hal Niedzviecki’s appalling Write op-ed introducing a special issue of Indigenous writing (in which he exhorted his fellow [presumably non-Indigenous] authors to appropriate other cultures for their own writing), I immediately recognized that the controversy had implications for my own work. At the end of this month, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) I will deliver a paper based on my recent article “Seeing the Forest for the Trees on Mars: Locating the Ideology of the Library of the Future” which was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship. The paper relies heavily on Niedzviecki’s 2015 book, Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future  for its analysis, but in light of the controversy, and as a non-Indigenous librarian responsible for Indigenous Studies collections and services, I felt my use of his writings was now rendered problematic to say the least.

My concerns only deepened in the following days as many leading voices in Canadian journalism (including Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s “The National”) tweeted their support for Niedzvecki, and even pledged their own money to fund an actual “cultural appropriation prize.”  Niedzvecki, to his credit, disavowed this Twitter campaign on his Facebook page, writing, “calls for an actual ‘appropriation prize’ are extremely unhelpful. They do not represent me in any way.” On CBC’s The Current, Niedzviecki also apologized, admitting,

I invited Indigenous writers into my house, so to speak, and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn’t mean to insult them. That wasn’t my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened.

Nevertheless, Niedzviecki’s op-ed unleashed a cultural firestorm that will surely be recognized for years to come as a turning point in Canadian letters. The negative reaction to his words was – to all but himself apparently – unsurprisingly swift, particularly from several of the Indigenous contributors to the special Write  issue itself. Niedzviecki was called out online for his ignorance in treating the issue of cultural appropriation so glibly, when for Indigenous peoples — who have endured not just cultural genocide but have had their cultures both belittled and casually strip-mined by non-Indigenous artists, writers and designers for aesthetic or fashion statements – it is a matter of their very survival. As Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe) argued in the Globe and Mail,

For native people, art and culture are not separate. The art of the West Coast carver is inseparable from their heritage. Same with Inuit sculpture and Cree beading. Anything that infringes upon our art can be considered a direct threat to our culture. So understandably, Indigenous people react. The charge is cultural appropriation. For us it’s a matter of cultural preservation.

The fallout from the Twitter campaign was if anything even more fierce and compelling. Shree Paradkar, writing in the Toronto Star argued that we all need to care about cultural appropriation calling it a “medium of oppression.” While some (mostly white) critics bemoaned the debate as a PC-run-amok attack on freedom of expression, Scaachi Koul writing at Buzzfeed condemned the conflation of literary imagination with appropriation:

I can’t believe I have to f****** say this, but no one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction. Frankly, we encourage it. …Abstaining from cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop you from writing thoughtfully about people who aren’t white. It does, however, stop you from ripping off people of colour, or pretending like you understand their stories intimately. It does preclude you from taking a culture that was never yours to begin with — a culture that might have made the lives of the people born with it harder in white Canada, or might mean they don’t get the same opportunities and privileges — and turning a profit.

Write contributor Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) stressed that the elite class claiming  the right to “free speech”  in the matter were deliberately ignoring the brutal context of Canada’s suppression of Indigenous people:

[F]orgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t…They don’t live with its intergenerational trauma the way we do. They never will.

Veteran journalist and teacher Andrew Mitrovica was equally outraged, saying that these journalists had “besmirched their work, reputations and cultural heritage, and made it plain to future generations of Indigenous and minority journalists where [their] allegiance lies.” At times, the response was also heartbreaking. Indigenous critic Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) blasted the “remarkable arrogance” of the journalists tweeting their support, and broke down in tears saying,

These things can’t happen again. This absorbs so much energy, it causes so much pain in our community, to have to re-argue for our value as human beings, on our own land? In a foreign language as I do to you now, one that was imposed on us? Please. What are we talking about in 2017…If anything this proves our strength as a community and our endurance. Don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me. I hope to never do this again.

As the scale of this national debate expanded, I felt a particular and urgent need — and responsibility — to address this controversy, before I could presume to privilege Niedzviecki’s ideas in a scholarly forum. To do this, I would like to use several theories from futures studies that Niedzviecki would have been wise to have included in Trees on Mars.

In my essay and upcoming conference paper, my use of Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars focuses largely on his discourse analysis in the fields of education and economics; that, in his view, our culture’s anxiety-ridden obsession with the future is all about the individualized (rather than collective) goal of shaping, owning and seizing the future through “disruptive” entrepreneurial innovation, with the concomitant belief that we must do away with anything that impedes access to the future.

While I noted in my CJAL article similarities between this discourse and much of the LIS literature regarding the “library of the future,” what struck me as a major blind spot on the part of Niedzviecki was that never once does he use the term neoliberalism when so much of what he discusses is clearly consistent with this ideology. Since writing the piece I have further come to realize that he also appears to have embarked on his inquiries without the necessary theoretical grounding in futures studies itself, with the result that he was unable to sufficiently situate his analysis — or, more significantly, recognize the implications it should have had for his editorship of the Indigenous issue of Write.

For example, futures studies scholar Barbara Adam  writing in the journal Twenty-First Century Society observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else, and therefore requires an ethical stance (88). It also changes the very nature of the future, emptying it of content and precedent, where exchange value is paramount:

The underlying principle of the pervasive change is to replace contextuality and embeddedness with decontextualised and disembedded relations in order to create a world of pure potential that is subject to human design and where anything is possible (55).

Another futurist,  Islamic scholar Ziaudden Sardar recognizes this as a colonizing force in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182).

For someone who devoted so many pages in Trees on Mars to critiquing a discourse of owning and seizing, Niedzviecki was stunningly oblivious to how appropriation also a form of taking. As Kate Taylor observed in the Globe and Mail,

Niedzviecki [is] guilty of the same kind of privileged creative assumption: that there’s a vast sea of images, ideas, stories and experiences out there and imaginative voyagers should be encouraged to pluck from it whatever flotsam they please. 

When Niedzviecki wrote that there was “nothing preventing us…from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends oral histories and sacred practices into our own works” he was essentially stating that the sacred knowledges of the world’s Indigenous peoples can be treated, as Adam and Groves put it, “as a resource for our use in the present [to] transform…to our will and desire [and] shape to our designs and intentions…as a realm of pure potential.” Indigenous knowledge, literature and culture may be reduced to its exchange value, stripped of context and embeddedness, and placed in whatever context may be imagined for it — tipis on Mars, if you will. That this appropriation would be at the hands of unfettered non-Indigenous writers with no relationship to such knowledge can only accelerate what Sardar calls the “built-in western momentum” of monocultural, colonized thought.

Yet, such efforts at disembeddedness run contrary to the very essence of Indigenous knowledge. At a Walrus magazine event over the weekend in Surrey, lawyer and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Alan Mills (Anishinaabe) affirmed this view, saying:

No one can appropriate my stories,…Not because I’m an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories. They’re of my relatives – humans, animals, plants, spirits; all alive. They’re not part of an intellectual commons just waiting to be brought to life by your particular unique imagination. To be able to tell the story is a beautiful gift and if it is given to you, it’s because it is already known that you will be grateful, that you will reciprocate.

Mr. Niedzviecki’s epistemological shortsightedness in both Trees on Mars and his Write op-ed was that he was relying on his own “particular unique imagination.” Had he read deeper into theories of futures studies before he wrote an entire book about it, he might have gained some pretty clear insights into his own positioning as a non-Indigenous creator with power over others, and the jarring irreconcilability of his notions regarding appropriation and the vitality of Indigenous writing. That much of Canada`s literary and journalistic intelligentsia followed his misguided call so enthusiastically reveals the extent to which they are profoundly steeped in colonial values and culture, and suggests that the pathway to our country`s own reconciled future will require very different cultural leadership.


On Wednesday May 17th the Globe and Mail  reported that a crowd funded literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers launched in response to the cultural appropriation controversy had raised more than $30,000.

On the same day, it was also announced that Steve Ladurantaye had been “reassigned” from his responsibilities at “The National.”

Literature Cited

Adam, B. (June 01, 2008). Future matters: futures known, created and minded. Twenty-first Century Society, 3, 2, 111-116.

Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2007). Future matters: Action, knowledge, ethics. Leiden: Brill.

Sardar, Z. (April 01, 2010). The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?. Futures, 42, 3, 177-184.


Between Not Forgetting and a Breathtaking Future: Notes from The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference


This June I had the good fortune (and great privilege) of attending and participating in the Pathways to Reconciliation conference, an international gathering of more than 400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the University of Winnipeg, June 15-18 2016. A partnership between the University of Manitoba, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the U of W, Pathways was an opportunity to explore the contexts for, as well as the meanings, dimensions and implications of the idea of reconciliation. Speakers included Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, and Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada as well as being a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council; Manitoba MLA Wab Kinew; Justin Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia; Cindy Blackstock of Gitksan First Nation in BC and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci who was instrumental in negotiating the Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005.

My primary role was to present my paper A Library Matter of Genocide as part of a panel on “Institutional Approaches,” but I also chaired a session on “Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation.” As well — and for the first time — I “live-tweeted” my participation; far from being the distraction I’d assumed it to be, I found it to be an exceptionally useful and economical way to summarize, synthesize and communicate a speaker’s content, rather than just taking copious notes. What follows are some of my conference highlights adapted from my Twitter account.

In the first panel I attended, “Telling the Stories,” U of W professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Dr. Mary LeMaître spoke to the need for Dismantling Colonial Discourse,” and her research into online racist comments as a form of social discourse. As a librarian I was naturally interested in her observation that the origin of colonial discourse lies in 18th century scientific classifications and racial hierarchies. Colonial discourse, she observed, places all of us within subject-object relationships: subjects speak while objects are spoken about. Our colonial social discourse, she observed, helps make our colonial structure invisible to non-Indigenous Canadians, most of whom have never read the Indian Act. We all have role to play in shaping social discourse, she concluded, and in educating ourselves to challenge the colonial narrative.

I was also acutely aware during her talk of how my own profession of librarianship is implicated in these colonial narratives, in subject-object relationships and in the invisibility of the discursive functions of both to most non-Indigenous library users. Indeed these issues lie at the heart of my presentation 

TRC Researcher and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Paulette Regan payed tribute to and honoured the residential school survivors who have gifted us with their stories, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only captured a moment in time; it is not the last word. All of us are charged with carrying its work forward. While reconciliation must also include support for cultural and linguistic revitalization, reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the Earth – meaning Canada and Canadians must decolonize its resource extraction economy.

This I realized also resonates with the ideas around deconstructing the term “decolonizing” — that it isn’t a metaphor, that it actually requires Canada to return sovereignty over the land to Indigenous peoples.

In a sometimes emotional presentation, Aboriginal Program Coordinator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Maeengan Linklater spoke on Residential Schools, Genocide, Recognition and the CMHR, as well as his lobbying efforts to institute a provincial “Indian Residential School Genocide Reconciliation Memorial Day.” He began by expressing his gratitude to the Pathfinders who told their stories of their experiences in the schools. Linklater spoke to the controversy over the Museum’s decision to avoid the word “genocide” when describing the residential school system, but argued that critics needed to direct their concerns at the government that funds and mandates the museum, not the museum itself. Linklater had submitted a bill for an IRS Reconciliation and Memorial Act to the Manitoba government in 2015; there has been no response as yet. However, MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is apparently going to try to present a federal version of the Bill in the near future. Linklater closed by expressing his gratitude to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for starting this dialogue.

Instituting such a holiday would be a powerful statement, one on par with the move in some American cities of doing away with Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Day.

In their presentation “We were Brave Children,” Dr. Rosemary Nagy of Nipissing University and residential school survivor Fredda Paul explored “childhood agential narratives” seeing the survivors’ narratives as ones of agency and resistance, rather than just of victimization. Nagy worked with Paul on his narrative; however, rather than tell his story for him, she indicated that he will be telling his own story in a forthcoming book. (Because Paul had been dismayed to learn that his TRC testimony was archived online without his knowledge, when it came time for him to tell his story I put my pen down).

The Thursday Luncheon Keynote speaker was Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, with his incredibly stirring speech “My Vision for a Reconciled Canada.” He began with an acknowledgment of — and we gave a standing ovation for — a group of residential school Survivors seated near the front of the room. Dr. Joseph then set out his vision: one in which reconciliation was understood not as a project or a goal but a core value to be embraced by all Canadians, all our lives. All Canadians need to come to terms with our collective past. Reconciliation is an intergenerational commitment; we need each other, and we are part of something great. A reconciled Canada must create modern Treaties where none exist. All Aboriginal people ever wanted, he said, was to be allowed to raise their own children; in a reconciled Canada, they will be able to once again. A reconciled Canada will have the power to change the world in what he described as “a future that is breathtaking, a shift of national consciousness – filled with a desire to be the people we say we are.”

In the Q&A after his speech, a Cree mother in the audience powerfully “called out” Canada for its child welfare genocide and Millenium Scoop that had taken her son away from her.

(One of the drawbacks of attending a conference hosted by your own university is that it all too easy to get called back the office; I was in a meeting the rest of the afternoon so missed that afternoon’s concurrent sessions).

On Friday morning the keynote speaker was former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci addressing the way forward to a new nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, which he says needs to be a joint federal and provincial project – not “either-or.” Recognition of this relationship must be on part of people and institutions, not just governments. The way forward must include change of attitudes involving education — but not just in schools – while children educated on history of IR Schools can help teach their parents. The way forward must also be principle-based, not merely transactional and include not forgetting the history of treatment of Indigenous peoples.

This essential task of “not forgetting” was the focus of the session I chaired on Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation. It featured four speakers either employed by or in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Julia Peristerakis, a Researcher-Curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, began by critiquing the modern project of museology for its long history of theft from and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Human Right sought to correct this through a “critical decolonizing” approach that integrates Indigenous voices and worldviews. The CMHR’s Indian residential school exhibit connects the schools with the Sixties scoop and current child welfare practices, as well as with other mass atrocities and moves to recognize it as genocide. Currently the CMHR is featuring temporary exhibit, “The Witness Blanket” a cedar panel monument to reconciliation. Reconciliation she said, requires reshaping historical narratives and museums have crucial role in challenging myth of peaceful settlement in Canada within framework of reconciliation.

Next, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Chair of the Memorial Para la Concordia in Guatemala spoke of interpreting and confronting memory of that country’s 36-year civil war through memorials. Guatemala’s Concord Memorial is a partnership of 10 civil society organizations commemorates the country’s Internal Armed Conflict and massacres; its process is deliberately not one of “reconciliation,” as the term implies “re-conciling”, a return to a past in which people were at peace, which in Guatemala did not exist. Rather they seek to build a “concord” between peoples, to create a new society. In addition to the construction of the Memorial Para la Concordia, the initiative includes a Memory Mapping project which documents over 500 plaques or monuments throughout Guatemala to acknowledge the conflict’s 200,000 victims, and these sites are now the location of Intergenerational Memory Dialogues. In Guatemala, reconciliation is non-ideological, bringing together people from the Left and Right, focusing on what is agreed upon, rather than on disagreement. Foppa added however that concord processes in Guatemala still need to do more to bridge racial and cultural divisions. One positive step in this direction is the phenomenal popularity of Guatemala’s all-female Alaide Foppa Orchestra (named after the speaker’s famous poet mother) which highlights female victims and role of women in reconciliation.

Foppa’s presentation was quite revelatory: I’d never parsed the term “reconciliation,” and from this perspective it would seem that perhaps Canada should have given more thought to adopting this as official terminology. There may not be an ideal previous state to which we can return, but we can work together on a concord for a better society in the future.

Another way in which women are dealing with the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war was the subject of CMHR curator Armando Perla’s talk. In the 1980’s, widows and orphaned girls formed weaving cooperatives which have been producing Indigenous textiles for stores across the country and which have garnered interaction attention. When the CMHR approached the cooperatives with the idea of creating a documentary and virtual gallery of their workshops, the women come up with a brilliant counter-proposal: that the CMHR Boutique carry their textiles. When the documentary is released visitors will be able to purchase the textiles in the Museum.

The final session I attended as an audience member was on the UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a Framework for Reconciliation; and it was standing room only! It featured four speakers: Judge David Arnot, President of CASHRA; Isha Khan with Manitoba Human Rights Commission; Will David, a policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations; and Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.

David got things off with a laugh and applause by stating that the Assembly of First Nations wants full adoption of UNDRIP. (Pause). “That’s it!” International and domestic laws he notes, have been illegitimately built on fiction of Colonial “Doctrine of Discovery“; correcting this legacy through Indigenous sovereignty will mean Nation(s) to Nation relationships – stressing the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures.

Arnot addressed the Intersections of Indigenous rights with Treaty and Human rights, which he introduced as a Venn Diagram. He began with the wry observation that a 99% rate of ignorance about Treaties on the part of non-Indigenous people doesn’t prevent 100% of them from having an opinion about them. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates right to know about rights, and on this, he said, human rights commissions have failed particularly in terms of recognizing the interconnections between Indigenous, human and treaty rights. What is needed is need K-12 education on the foundation of knowledge and understanding, hence of empathy, respect, harmony and reconciliation, which he called a Pedagogy of Respect.

Isha Khan urged the audience to  reach out to Indigenous people but not to worry so much about doing or saying the wrong thing — invite an Elder to your organization and “ask really dumb questions!”

Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin added that each principle of UNDRIP a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples. It took 20 years to pass UNDRIP because of colonial nation state intransigence. We all need to transcend and transform the limitations of Canadian law: he finds troubling that Canada’s official wording of adoption of UNDRIP says it is contingent on “domestic law.”

In addition to my own presentation in the “Institutional Approaches” panel, Mary-Ann Clarke delivered an often devastating paper on her professional and personal experiences with Child and Family Services, arguing that CFS needs to withdraw from all Aboriginal family services within two generations, replacing its policing function with general services and supports, i.e., housing, counselling, health, mental health etc.

I was disappointed that my session coincided with that of my colleagues Monique Woroniak and Ashlyn Haglund, who reported on their experiences creating the amazing Groundwork for Change website, which offers non-Indigenous Canadians a primer on colonization, racism, white privilege and Indigenous sovereignty.

The conference as a whole was so rich and so necessary there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants I spoke with that it shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, but rather a regular event. Joining with so many hundreds of other people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadians and people from around the world – was a truly transformative experience, and I’m grateful to the organizers and all the speakers for sharing so much with us. Gathered as we were for the purposes of “not forgetting” and working towards reconciliation (and a concord) — what Dr. Chief Robert Joseph described as a “brilliant future” that can “change the world” — one couldn’t help but feel a part of that future.

[Image credit: University of Winnipeg, Flickr]

A Library Matter of Genocide, pt. II

Some months ago, I decided to submit an abstract to the Ontario Library Association conference, based on a post of mine from this past May, A Library Matter of Genocide, which dealt with the bizarrely euphemistic, inadequate and utterly biased treatment of the genocide against Native Americans on the part of Library of Congress Subject Headings. The abstract was accepted, and I’m scheduled to present this paper on Friday, January 29th as a part of the OLA’s Aboriginal issues stream.

Recently, I was also asked by a faculty member in the University of Winnipeg’s History department to speak to his philosophy of history class on the theme of libraries and historiography, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop the earlier essay into what will become my conference paper. The timing was also fortunate because several news items in September pointed to the invisibility of the Native American holocaust, and the imperative for libraries to foreground this history in their bibliographic tools.

In early September 2015, a Cal State Sacramento University student named Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu) was expelled from class for confronting her history professor for his refusal to concede that Native Americans had been subjected to a genocide, a confrontation that made the professor so angry he accused her of “hijacking” his class, at which point he dismissed the class and told her he had “disenrolled” her. Then, on September 23rd, Pope Francis – celebrated around the world by liberals and progressives for his stances on climate change – canonized Father Junípero Serra, calling him a “protector of Native Americans” for establishing California’s mission system; despite Native American activists and other critics pointing out that the mission system was notorious for being slave labour camps, the death rates at which exceeded birth rates. Within days of Serra’s canonization, his statue at the Carmel mission where he is buried was vandalized, and “Saint of Genocide” written on the stones. As the New York Times reported,

Historians agree that [Serra] forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death…Thousands of Native Americans died after being exposed to European diseases. Those who survived were forced to give up tribal customs and submit to the demands of their Christian overlords — from observing rites like baptism to enduring physical abuse and working conditions that resembled slavery… Villagers were rounded up, shackled or flogged if they failed to follow the missionaries’ Catholic code. 

I framed my presentation with these stories, and how both events have reignited a debate over the long-standing lack of recognition on the part of Americans in general – and the intelligentsia in particular — of the reality of the genocide of Native Americans.

For decades, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of mass killings and atrocities have been excluded from the “borderlines” of genocide studies, owing to both a focus on definitions, typologies and perpetrator motivations, and a dismissal of Indigenous worldviews; Noam Chomsky also observes that a widely-shared imperial culture among America’s intelligentsia has resulted in a consensus view on genocides rooted in American exceptionalism such that both historic and contemporary atrocities wrought by America or her allies are by definition not genocides, or are downplayed or imbued with virtue owing to their role in furthering the American project of freedom and democracy. He notes of the historical record of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s illegal and vastly indiscriminate war against Cambodia,

We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history.

The title for my paper is taken from Ward Churchill’s 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, in which he argues that many orthodox American historians across the ideological spectrum resist applying the term “genocide” to the catastrophic loss of life Native Americans suffered over the past 500 years, either by denying, minimizing or even justifying the nature and scale of the killings that took place. As well – and to further compound the ideological nature of this controversy – the debate over the use of the term genocide has also been bound up in a broader discourse over the legitimacy of comparative genocide studies, and whether or not the uniqueness of the Holocaust prevents historians from seeking any commonalities with other historical atrocities, particularly America’s extermination of its Indigenous peoples. Churchill in particular criticizes Deborah Lipstadt, historian and author of Denying the Holocaust for her conflating historians seeking to compare genocides with outright deniers, such as David Duke. Historian and philosopher Steven Katz, too, is lambasted by Churchill for his assertion that what occurred was not a genocide but a “demographic collapse” caused overwhelmingly by disease, and that deaths owing to the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars” only amounted to some tens of thousands – that is, that the extermination of the Indians transpired “unwittingly rather than by design”.

Churchill classes the orthodox interpretations as ranging from such exclusivist and minimalizing explanations as Katz’, to efforts at “contextualizing” the mass killings as typical of civilizational clashes and conventions of warfare in a more violent past, to actually justifying and rationalizing them in light of the benificent nature of contemporary American civilization. Some of the so-called “exclusivists” carry their argument so far, he observes, that they accuse “comparativists” of antisemitism.

The discourse Churchill identifies has more or less successfully minimized, euphemized, isolated and rendered ideologically toxic the historical reality of the Native American Genocide. I then argued that access to this literature, via the Library of Congress Subject Headings, has contributed in no small way to these processes.

The response from the students was vigorous, interesting and provocative; several of them had also run into problems themselves in researching aspect of the Native American genocides or Indigenous history in general and found the subject terms inadequate at best. Some examples:

  • A student working on an oral history project concerning the residential school experience ran into difficulties when the stories they were hearing, the concepts and experiences of the residential school survivors, couldn’t be described using the LCSH;
  • a student writing a paper on how museums respond to/treat the subject of genocide found it difficult to find anything;
  • one student’s mother had tried 10 years ago to do a dissertation about the residential schools as a form of genocide, but couldn’t find resources that made this connection; this is now changing since Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair have openly applied the term to Canada in the wake of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • histories of Custer’s Last Stand from an Indigenous point of view record how his “last stand” was actually only the final such defeat that the 7th Cavalry had suffered – there had been others but are not often mentioned in conventional history. The student argued that this shows how Native voices in the historical record matter.

The class concluded with a broader discussion led by the professor on what difference it makes whether we call something genocide or a massacre. I argued that it changes the conversation: if Chiitaanibah Johnson had been able to open her laptop and go to the Cal Tech library catalogue she could have shown her professor all the dozens of books with the subject heading “Genocide United States History”, thereby undercutting his genocide denial. Sadly, no books can be found using this heading.

Further, enabling the use of the word “genocide” in the case of Native Americans would help to legitimize the ability to compare genocides, the study of which can help us prevent them from happening again. As Chomsky and Churchill argue, if genocide is only seen as the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe, while dismissing many other historical atrocities and campaigns of extermination, this is a form of holocaust denial. It fails to recognize that genocide can happen anywhere, at any time, and that any one of us could potentially become participants in it, given sufficient enculturation. Disabling our ability to name and discuss genocide disables our ability to recognize and prevent it.

A Library Matter of Genocide

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (CMHR) — the first national museum located outside of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa — has been fraught with controversy since its inception, largely over accusations regarding its unequal and imbalanced treatment of genocides. Its official view as a crown corporation is that it only names those genocides recognized by the government of Canada: the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Armenian genocide of 1915 (over Turkish objections) and the Holodomor in Ukraine. On the matter of the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, however, the Museum is more circumspect, only acknowledging in a display on residential schools that  “many people argue” they were a “form” of genocide. As a result, Indigenous groups spoke out against the Museum during its development, and protested it when it opened.

Yesterday’s Winnipeg Free Press reveals that this stance on the part of the Museum may have in fact been vigorously enforced, its curators actively directed to remove references to Canada’s genocide. The article quotes Tricia Logan, a former curator with the CMHR, who writes in a chapter she contributed to the 2014 book Remembering Genocide from Routledge, (edited by Nigel Eltringham and Pam Maclean), that

“As a curator at the CMHR, I was consistently reminded that every mention of state-perpetrated atrocity against indigenous peoples in Canada must be matched with a ‘balanced’ statement that indicates reconciliation, apology or compensation provided by the government. In cases where those issues are not reconciled or where accusations of abuse against the government continue to this day, the stories are reduced in scope or are removed from the museum…I was also instructed to remove the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘settler colonial genocide’ from all indigenous exhibits.

As a result, she concluded, the museum was, in her words, “accepting a model of complacency and promotion of the status quo.”

As it turns out, yesterday I also presented a library instruction session to an Aboriginal History course at the University of Winnipeg in which we also came across some classic examples of “complacency” and “status quo” concerning the genocide of Native Americans, but these are on the part of the Library of Congress. In the process of demonstrating our library catalogue, I discovered and displayed the book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard, which, according to the publisher Oxford University Press, is about “the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world:”

For four hundred years–from the first Spanish assaults against the Arawak people of Hispaniola in the 1490s to the U.S. Army’s massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in the 1890s–the indigenous inhabitants of North and South America endured an unending firestorm of violence. During that time the native population of the Western Hemisphere declined by as many as 100 million people…Stannard reveals that wherever Europeans or white Americans went, the native people were caught between imported plagues and barbarous atrocities, typically resulting in the annihilation of 95 percent of their populations… Advancing a thesis that is sure to create much controversy, Stannard contends that the perpetrators of the American Holocaust drew on the same ideological wellspring as did the later architects of the Nazi Holocaust.

Surely there is no “circumspection” on the part of the author, no effort to downplay the extent of this brutal history by conceding only that “many people argue” that a genocide occurred. And yet – how did the Library of Congress decide to describe these damning contents?

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence.
  • Indians, Treatment of.
  • Indians — First contact with Europeans.
  • America — Discovery and exploration — Spanish.


Standing before a class of Indigenous students – mostly women – I regarded the screen with something akin to horror. I couldn’t let this teachable moment pass. The contrast between this book’s contents and its official description were too stark — indeed, too obscene to ignore. I pointed out the disparities: committing mass atrocities is a way to be “influential”? Torturing, killing, starving and poisoning constitutes a form of “treatment”? Even at the most basic level these subject headings were inaccurate: surely this book went beyond “first contact” to describe the wars and slaughter against Native Americans? And the use of “discovery and exploration” as a way to convey the murder of 100 million people is beyond comment.

These Subject Headings are clearly so incommensurate with the book’s contents, so dishonest a way to offer user access to it, that they go beyond inadequate and into the territory of what could well be characterized as holocaust denial. Indeed, they accord well with the tendencies Ward Churchill identifies in his 1997 book, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present, in which he wrote,

The American holocaust was and remains unparalleled both in terms of its magnitude and degree to which its goals were met, and in terms of the extent to which its ferocity was sustained over time by not one but several participating groups.The ideological matrix of its denial is also among the most well developed of any genocide — or more accurately, series of genocides – for which a significant amount of information is readily available…In other words, denial is manifested in more-or-less equal parts at all points on the ideological compass of the dominant society…the historical reality is simultaneously denied, justified and in most cases celebrated (pp. 4 and 7).  

As an arm of the United States government, the Library of Congress contributes to this “ideological matrix,” by minimizing and sanitizing historical reality through subject headings such as these. Interestingly (and ironically) Churchill’s book is assigned the following Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Indians, Treatment of — North America — History.
  • Indian of North America — Government relations.
  • Genocide — North America — History.
  • United States — Race relations.
  • North America — Politics and government.
  • Indians of North America — Government relations

While the third heading is nominally more honest – Genocide in North America is acknowledged at least, if only passively (who did it? Against whom?) the remaining headings are excruciatingly inappropriate. Genocide is not a form of “government relations” or “race relations.” These terms suggest some sort of power parity, that the book deals with forms of governance, not deliberate campaigns of extermination. To further compound matters, there is no subject access to another of the book’s major arguments, criticizing those who seek to promote the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust and downplay and negate other genocides.

The assignment of such headings is not just dishonest, but by obscuring, omitting, disguising and misrepresenting the contents of these books it erects significant barriers to discovery on the part of the interested researcher, and therefore fails even on a practical level. On a broader level, such headings are part of the status quo-enforcing power — well-recognized in the literature — of the library’s “power to name” (in the words of Hope Olson). As Daniel Martínez-Ávila and José Guimarães wrote in a 2013 article in the journal Scire,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time…It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or place it in the wrong context…[A]ll these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo.

It accords with the interests of power on both sides of the 49th parallel to avoid facing the reality of the genocide of Native Americans; unfortunately for those interested in researching this history it is necessary to navigate the codified, formalized language of this avoidance.

Additional sources:

Martínez-Ávila, Daniel and Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves. 2013. Library Classifications Criticisms: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics. Scire 19 (2): 21-6.

Decolonization: Re-Colonization or Transformation?

The most common meaning of decolonization lies in the processes by which imperial nations cede political control over their onetime colonies — often as the result of an independence movement or warfare — thus allowing those nations to govern themselves. While decolonization as a political project dominated the postwar years, Israeli professor Marcelo Dascal argues  that the most enduring legacy of colonialism still remains — that of the “epistemic violence” by which colonialism has imposed itself on the minds of the colonized, such that the structures, values, culture and world view of the colonizer remains and is reproduced in the new, independent society.

Dascal’s observations are particularly relevant for this project. What is of concern here is not so much the politics of imperial nation states, but the extent to which the worldviews that made such dominance possible still affect our knowledge structures, social relations and cultures, and which are reproduced through our institutions of learning — which as Soenke Biermann  argues in his chapter in Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education are the means by which “the state generates, legitimates and disseminates officially sanctioned knowledges” (394). These forms of order have been especially destructive to the colonized. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes in her Decolonizing Methodologies,

Imperialism and colonialism brought complete disorder to colonized peoples…a process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carve-up of of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviors to psychologists. To discover how fragmented this process was one needs only to stand in a museum, a library, a bookshop and ask where indigenous peoples are located” (p. 28).

Addressing these deeply rooted — almost culturally genetic — predispositions in our society requires a profound re-orientation, which of necessity must include education and enculturation. What Dascal points out, however, is that traditional strategies for intellectual decolonization — namely, re-education — can be as equally ruthless as was the case under colonial rule, which in his view amounts to re-colonization. Frantz Fanon, writing in his classic The Wretched of the Earth, concurs, noting that “Decolonization which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder” (p. 2).

The problem then becomes, how to accomplish what Fanon refers to as the “the decolonization of the mind” in a way that is not “re-colonizing” or completely disordered? Is there a pathway that is more integrative and transformative?

The process of acknowledging and deconstructing white privilege and colonial assumptions, thereby reversing traditionally Eurocentric knowledge structures (or what Blaut refers to as the Colonizer’s Model of the World), requires resurrecting Indigenous histories and recognizing their contributions to global history; replacing historical narratives of colonialism with those that demonstrate its contributions to poverty and oppression, not just modernist notions of “progress”; and challenging our internalized colonialism by acknowledging the validity of other worldviews. Following the classic writings of Aime Cesaire, Biermann believes that

Turning the tables on the supposed advantages of dominance means viewing colonialism itself through a deficit prism and bringing to light that whatever the short-term benefits supremacy bestows over others, oppression ultimately works to diminish and dehumanize everyone, including and especially the oppressor……we might understand decolonization as the active unraveling of assumed certainties and the re-imagining and re-negotiation of common futures. Importantly, this has to work from a position of equality, not dominance, and thus involves a reflective peeling back of various layers of privilege and the ignorance that comes with it” (p. 394).

The challenge and opportunity then, is to “peel back” privilege, to collectively re-imagine and re-negotiate, to undo the mutually dehumanizing processes of colonization, and therefore be capable of mapping out a common future. Recognizing the ways in which all of us become dehumanized by colonialism (and its principal rationale, racism), is especially important in nations such as Canada and the United States, in which it is settler colonialists, rather than an external imperial power, that has taken the lands of indigenous populations, making “post colonial” conditions impossible.

There is, however, a danger in thinking that “decolonizing the mind” is an end in itself, that it is a substitute for reversing the injustices wrought by centuries of dispossession. As Tuck and Yang caution, decolonization is not a metaphor:

Yet we wonder whether [if] to focus on decolonizing the mind, or the cultivation of critical consciousness, as if it were the sole activity of decolonization [is] to allow conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land. We agree that curricula, literature, and pedagogy can be crafted to aid people in learning to see settler colonialism, to articulate critiques of settler epistemology, and set aside settler histories and values in search of ethics that reject domination and exploitation; this is not unimportant work. However, the front-loading of critical consciousness building can waylay decolonization, even though the experience of teaching and learning to be critical of settler colonialism can be so powerful it can feel like it is indeed making change. Until stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (p. 19).

Tuhiwai Smith charts a course towards just such a “Decolonizing Methodology” , showing that decolonization is but one component of a pathway towards holistic social restoration, which also involves processes of healing, transforming and mobilizing. She stresses that these are not end goals but processes, and that they comprise a social justice agenda that connects the local to the global. To contribute in this way, decolonization processes are not only political and social, but also psychological and spiritual, thus freeing indigenous peoples of the “colonizer’s model of the world” so as to move beyond survival and recovery towards development and, finally, to genuine self-determination (p. 117).

In subsequent posts, we will engage with the specific ways in which libraries can contribute to such a project.