Manifest Destiny: My Story

When I was young, I knew that my grandfather was something called “Chippewa”. He never talked about it – but the signs were there. A Thunderbird flag hanging in his room. His collection of artefacts from his grandmother. The way he’d occasionally tell stories about his life on his grandfather’s farm.

Then, we were outside last fall, and he was staring contemplatively at the trees turning in our backyard. He turned to me and said, “Your mother has the healing hands. My grandmother had them. You can put your hands on anyone and they just feel better.”

He took my hands. “I think you have them, too.”

I’m 1/4 Chippewa. I’m what the government calls a “Status Indian” because I am registered with the Chippewas of the Thames. Our reservation is in Melbourne, Ontario. My grandfather was born there, and he still has land there. One of my dreams is to go to the reservation and stand on my grandfather’s land, hopefully before he dies. He’s said that he wants me to do that, too.

So why is this important? Well, in the long run, it’s not. It’s not important that I’m a Native woman who is dealing with the loss of culture. It’s not important that Gap Inc. released a shirt that has the slogan of Manifest Destiny on it. None of it is important. As many have told me, it’s time to let it all go. After all, we’ve “been given so much”.

Yeah. Okay.

My grandfather grew up during the residential school era. He saw what happened to his peers. He grew up speaking Ojibwe. He doesn’t remember anything of that language now. And that’s the tip of the iceberg, folks. It’s why I’m only learning about my culture now. It’s why Manifest Destiny is disgusting.

My friend Anne at the Belle Jar Blog explains this much better than I do. Manifest Destiny is the name for a concept that sprung up during the pioneer era of our continent. There was a school of thought that has been pervasive throughout history. It’s the thought that white people should conquer over all other tribes. That white people are supreme.

I was told, over Facebook, that it’s time for Natives and other people who were victims of Manifest Destiny to let it go. That if we hadn’t all been fighting amongst each other, the whites would have never gotten a foothold and maybe we’d have more land.

Let me tell you a little story about land claims.

Right now, my band (it’s called a band, the organization that creates the laws for my branch of the Chippewas) is in a battle for a stretch of land in Northern Ontario, called Big Bear Creek. The government of Canada and the COTT are in a battle to settle this land. Twice, the government has refused COTT’s terms for the settlement. We were supposed to vote on October 27. That vote has been put off.

This is land that was ours, that was taken from us, and the government is refusing to settle our claim on our terms. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

People conquer each other. That’s history. But Manifest Destiny represents more than simple conquering. It’s not the case of a peaceful agreement between whites and Natives. It’s more than that . . . it’s the fact that women, children and young men died on blood-soaked prairies, their villages burned, their food source taken away. It’s about the fact that Natives were crowded onto reservations, like the one my grandfather was born on, like the one in Caledonia, Ontario, where people don’t have basic running water or electricity. You know what the government sent the residents of Attawapiskat? Body bags. And plastic buckets to be their toilets.

It’s about the fact that my grandfather, NOW, in the 8th decade of his life, is now feeling comfortable enough to start telling me things about his family. About his culture. It’s about the millions of sexually abused children of the Anglican residential schools who grew up angry, hurt, and broken.

We’re not going to “get over this” anytime soon. And while Gap Inc. has removed the racist shirt from their assortment, the fact remains that someone thought it was okay to use a concept that hurt and killed millions of people, not even just Natives or people of colour, as a fashion statement. It’s the same as the Dolce and Gabbana “Mammy” earrings that were shown recently at a fashion show. It’s the same as Hallowe’en costumes that allow white children to become “Pochahontas” and “hobos”.

We’re trying not to be victims. We reach, every day, past the racism, the derision, and the judgement. From white people sneering at us for getting benefits from the government. We don’t get those benefits because we’re Native. We get them because much, much more was taken from us than land.

Look, if you want to reclaim Manifest Destiny to mean something other than “kill those brown people over there because whites are amazing”, go for it. But educate yourself. Don’t tell us to get over it.

You might want to forget it ever happened, but we can’t. My grandfather can’t. I can’t.

And Gap Inc.? I’ll take that apology any time now.

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