What I’ve heard my Muslim peers say about Indigenous Canadians:
Well, I did hear a couple of things. At least since I’ve started the conversation. But 1. I don’t really want to call out a friend who said something oppressive in public and 2. “Nothing” sounds more dramatic doesn’t it? In the grand scheme of things I think “nothing” is truthful. I’ve been in Canada since 2008 and this topic, alarmingly, has hardly come up in Muslim gatherings and never in khutbahs.
A friend once told me that empathy is not a natural feeling and that is why people don’t understand the hardships of others until they experience them, so I wasn’t sure how to write this. I want to awaken everyday Muslims to the reality of the world they live in. I have a lot of statistics that I could use but another friend once said that facts don’t change people, relationships do. My friends say a lot of pretty insightful things, don’t they?
Off the bat:
Racism is alive and well.
Indigenous people are not privileged.
The above statements are facts. You will be able to see them as you read on but only if you keep an open mind. Give this the same courtesy you would like your story to be given.
This is my short account of how Indigenous spirituality and Islamic spirituality share their strongest and most fundamental pillars which I have collected from relationships I was blessed with on a visit to Six Nations of the Grand River. It is also an implicit account of Indigenous struggles in Canada. By the end of this read you will not be an expert, but you will be more than a blank page. Insha’Allah.
First Night: Spiritual Cousins
Arrival time: not sure. Probably around 8pm. How do you know you’re on a reserve? The most telling sign is the houses: mansions are next door to ones that are barely standing. There aren’t rich and poor areas which looked to me like it made for a collective society void of classism. If not on purpose then at least encouraged. The Bears Inn is a charming log-cabin style inn where the rooms are named, not numbered, to tell a story. I shared Runner’s Room with Jared BigCanoe, an up and coming Ojibwe Hip-Hop artist who goes by the stage name of J-Rez. Jared saw me praying Isha and almost immediately said: tell me about your relationship with the Creator. That one goes in the top 5 most beautiful requests that I have ever received I tell you. We briefly discussed what prayer means to Muslims: that it is an ongoing connection between Creator and creation. We then met with the rest of the group, all 12, for dinner which was preceded by a smudging ceremony. Smudging is a cleansing to help remove negative energies and heaviness. This is where I made the first connection with my own spirituality and Islamic teachings. Herbs like sage are burned and the smoke is collected in one’s palm and hovered over one’s eyes, ears, mouth, mind and heart. Every action had a profound meaning: covering the mouth was in such a way to be able to speak the words that are needed to be spoken. That is reminiscent of Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s hadith which says “speak that which is good or remain silent”. The way smudging is performed is incredibly reminiscent of ablution, or wudu, for us Muslims and it serves in many ways the same purpose: a cleanse and form of spiritual centering. It’s remarkable how a practice that is not Islamic drew me closer to my own Islamic identity. This is what happens when we open up to other communities – we grow.
Second day: The Mohawk Institute Residential School
The second day was heavy. We took a tour inside one of the last standing residential schools in Canada. Our tour guides were two survivors – two incredibly powerful women who despite revisiting that awful, creaking building, and memories were so warm, inviting and informative. Residential schools are often called mush holes because the food the children were served was mush – oatmeal that sometimes had worms in it. I don’t have too much space to detail what experiences Indigenous children went through, you will have to do that on your own time, but I can tell you this: the “students” were anywhere between a few months to 16 years old and their attendance was compulsory as per the Indian Act of 1885. Residential schools were the manifestation of cultural genocide and the last one to close did so in 1996 in Saskatchewan. Twenty years ago. Not two hundred. Is it then a surprise that Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency in March amid a hundred and forty suicide attempts in two weeks? Western Canada is still ripe with hurtful memories and experiences. Well, what about the rest of the Indigenous population in Canada, you ask?
There exists a theory under investigation in Western science that has shown interesting results: transgenerational trauma. Transgenerational trauma presents itself in two ways. The first in the form of unresolved PTSD which profoundly affects parenting. A healing father who turns to alcohol may severely mistreat his child, in turn giving them PTSD. The second builds off of the fact that a person’s environment can alter their DNA. That means the effects of serious trauma can be inherited. In other words, in addition to social challenges like racism, transgenerational trauma is a very steep hill on the road to recovery.
There is another called ethnostress, as coined in the 1980s by various marginalized groups in an attempt to understand the lack of progress within their respective communities. Ethnostress is the disruption of the Aboriginal spirit. This is established, in summary, by the following: ‘the disruption of the cultural beliefs of joyful identity of a people. The result of oppressive conditions forced upon a people in their own environment. The negative experience they feel when interacting with either their own or other cultural groups. The feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness that disrupts our ability to achieve our basic needs.’
Those two phenomena are not very tangible and so difficult to comprehend. Coupled with our government’s lightning (sarcasm) pace for recognizing and working towards the healing and socio-economic equity of Indigenous people it is no wonder they have been held back. Time heals all wounds but not if they are kept open by those responsible for closing them.
I wanted to connect as much as I could with the survivors. As I walked in I tried imagining how I would feel going back to a place that crushed me and hindered my spirit. Funny enough, the first place I could think of was my high school. Maybe it was being in a building that used to be a school, maybe it was really that my high school experience was like a developmental straitjacket ripe with racism but I breathed in the relief I felt in not being there anymore and it started sinking in. As we walked through the residential school I could feel how every creak in the old, wooden stairs with short rails and every gash on the walls and every stain in those overused communal bathtubs would evoke explosive memories. Places mean something because we associate them with our personal experiences and what a hurtful place that is.
Final day: Sustainability
We visited the McMaster University Museum of Art where there was a display detailing the story of the Great Peacemaker who, by all accounts, was a Prophet whose objective was to establish peace among the Six Nations after a period of war and turmoil. His message was Peace, Power and Righteousness. Peace: healthy body, healthy mind. Power: harmonious, non-violent unity. Righteousness: justice between people and justice between nations. These principles are upheld such that all decisions are made in the best interest of the generations to come.
His message sounds like one a Prophet from Allah (swt) would carry, doesn’t it?
The final connection I made was about the traditional system of government for Six Nations. Very much like the khilafah in the early days of Islam after the Prophet’s (PBUH) passing the leaders were selected based on merit and consensus rather than an electoral process as is the norm today. The leaders are known as the Clan Mothers. Clan Mothers are responsible for the children – raising and watching over them – and selecting male Chiefs to run the Clan affairs much like a Prime Minister would. There are reasons for the need for male Chiefs: leadership can be toxic. The stress and backlash can be incredibly mentally taxing and to protect the youth from this negative energy it is the male Chiefs who are the faces and effective leaders. The Clan Mothers are like the Supreme Court. If a Chief is not fulfilling his duties in a way that is beneficial for the younger generations and those to come he is given three warnings. The third warning is when a young relative of the Chief approaches him, explains why his leadership is failing then strips him of it. What a sustainable vehicle to traverse life in?
Perhaps that is why it is in Islamic teachings that khalifahs can only be males?
Ok, Sameh. What do I do with this information?
The Six Nations reserve is forty minutes from Hamilton, ON, where there is a huge and very active Muslim population but there is hardly a relationship of note between us. Ally-ship is one of the most important facets of being a Muslim. It is our duty to amplify the voices of the marginalized and oppressed yet many of us have never met a Native person. For years I knew nothing but what mainstream pop culture and public opinion have perpetuated and I am here to tell you it is nonsense. I am here to tell you to wake up, choose to know more and know better. Seek out those relationships and make an active effort to empower and ally, because inaction is ignorance is oppression.