Surviving Canada

The Marrow Thieves is Cherie Dimaline´s prize winning, imaginative, action novel that raises questions about modern-day colonization. Doing nothing to prevent indigenous cultures from expiring is like sucking the DNA from entire ethnic groups, is what the book suggests.

As resources become scarce or polluted, western society wages war on the tribes to extract their bone marrow, the substance of dreams. Neither the catholic church or the New Age subculture is deemed truly respectful of indigenous peoples, this is an open confrontation against any sort of thievery. Poetic in its imaginative drama, the novel places art and storytelling amongst the most valuable aspects of humankind.

In the story, one of the characters “can´t catch a break for being a half-breed”. Are identity politics moving towards the ideal of racial purity?

I am a member of the Metis Nation. Originally we were halfbreeds –the product of relationships between early French voyageurs and Indigenous women. Over the years, we grew into a distinct nation with our own language, governance, hunt, ceremonies and ways of life. We were and still are to this day, in many ways, referred to as halfbreeds. There is always danger in defining identity inside of 'blood quantum' or purity as is the case with government-controlled identities. For example, when the government in what became Canada was signing treaties, they refused treaty to the 'halfbreeds', even though the Indigenous chiefs requested our inclusion. This is not the way we identify each other as Indigenous people, but rather an act of a foreign government. Sadly, some people now think along these lines of full or nothing. It´s one of the reasons why it´s necessary that we have self-government. 

Clearly the tribes are the underdog of the story, due to their disadvantage in numbers and the trickery of their enemy. At times one catches glimpses of a certain moral superiority. What can western society learn, in moral terms, from Canadian indigenous tribes?

There are a few really important pieces in The Marrow Thieves as it relates to Indigenous teachings for a global world. One is that we have sophisticated, in-depth and specific knowledge about the lands we are on. Indigenous knowledge is not just ceremony, though that is important. We also carry geology, science, conservationism, history, astronomy and biology from its earliest days on our land. If you want to know how to save the environment you occupy, Indigenous people are your best chance. It´s just math –we've been here longer and our philosophies carry the understanding of responsibility towards it. 

Another lesson would be the understanding of family as both the one you are born into and the one you create –including the connections that make us all the best versions of ourselves.

Language has an extraordinary power in the story, a magical quality. Names in their original language give back a sense of being and dignity to those on the run, even to the youngest, who didn´t get a chance to learn them. Do you see excitement or interest for indigenous culture or language in today´s Canadian youth?

Absolutely. Canada, in partnership with the churches, stole thousands of Indigenous children and put them into residential schools where nutritional experiments were carried out, there was rampant sexual physical and emotional abuse and where children were forbidden from speaking our languages or practicing our cultures. This is documented fact that has gone through the court system and has resulted in numerous reports and books. The last school closed in 1996. We now have a strong, informed and motivated young population that is actively seeking to reclaim and revitalize what was taken, that which was ripped away. We survived a massive, long standing attempted genocide campaign and our kids are coming up to make sure we have what we need to move forward, and that we never forget.

Part of the solution to the unrest of displaced tribes is in the land. “When we heal our land, we are healed too”, says one of the characters. For this sort of cultural healing to happen indigenous peoples need to govern over large parts of territory once again. How can that reconcile with the idea of Nation States?

It all comes down to two things. One, we are supposed to be recognized as sovereign nations and our government is to deal with us on a nation-to-nation basis. This must be more than lip-service. And two, we need allies. We must have our family- chosen family, stand with us. We are free people with nowhere free to roam. But we can still turn it around. But only if we stand together.

Cherie Dimaline and Weildler Guerra in conversation with Ingrid Bejerman about Indigenous cosmovisions. Thursday, January 31st at 20:00 in Hotel Sofitel.