Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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I was asked a question. It took me a while to answer it but this is my response.

Letter to Chief Day

By Dawn Marie

Dear Chief Day;

I am very sorry for the delay in my getting back to you. I just haven’t really had time to focus on your question of June 17, 2014. You asked me what I would like to say about grassroots initiatives and issues of importance. Firstly, I would like to thank you for asking me. I am deeply touched by your notice. It is very appreciated.

I cannot speak for anyone else. I can only speak for myself as a person in the unique position that I find myself. I am just an artist. My role and responsibility as an artist has been mentored into me. There are times where it is this role and responsibility that have compelled me to action but I live autonomously. I am not affiliated or employed with organizations or institutions. It is this autonomy that allows me to float in and around many different circles. It is this autonomy that allows me to say what others cannot say or will not say. It is this autonomy that has earned me the trust of many people; mostly marginalized people. Much of the work I do is guided by others. People come to me and ask me to get involved. I get sent documents to review. I get invitations to sit in the background of meetings. I get phone calls from people inside the organizations and institutions whose hands are tied. I serve a purpose. It is my autonomy that gives me the flexibility to work with academics, technicians and grassroots organizers. It does come at a heavy price; a price that I am not sure my children can afford to pay much longer.

I am a Cree-Metis, C-31 Member of Cold Lake First Nations (Dene Suline territory). No matter what good I have done; I am constantly reminded that I am not accepted or acceptable in my “home” community. I fight for Treaty Rights; fully cognisant that my children may never benefit from my fight. My family has been told many times; “you are not welcome here.” This is the beginning of my personal journey. I listen to the ones who do not have a voice, because I do not have a voice. I can’t tell you what grassroots want with authority. It is not my right. I do not have their permission. I can only tell you what I think. I can only tell you how I see things. I can only tell you what I know. I hope it is enough.

“I don’t have to tell these fucking Indians what I am doing. I know what I am doing and they are a bunch of backwards, uneducated hicks.” I didn’t hear these words in a government board room. It wasn’t some non-Indigenous rant. This was a man who works in the band office. He was a member of the community. I wish it was the only time I encountered internalized racism in the band office but it wasn’t. Actually, some of the worst offenders are some of the people that we vote in as leaders. Heartbreaking isn’t it? Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to see each other as human beings. There is a residual effect to this kind of thinking. As long as we are seen as backwards, uneducated hicks; there is no need or desire to be accountable to us. The assumption being that we are too dumb to know anything so why bother communicating. I never finished my degrees. Perhaps someday I will go back but I have other work to do right now. I do have a love of learning and academic writing and desire to understand what is happening around me. I’m a gifted researcher and can synthesize information effectively. I am not stupid, nor am I under-read or unprofessional. Any person who has worked along side me can attest to both my desire to do the work right and my ability to be accountable. I send out regular updates to the teams I work with and strive to make things understood. Often working with varying literacy levels in people; I consider it my responsibility to communicate often and effectively. If I can do that; then I can give my team a feeling of self-worth and build up their confidence to do even greater things. It also builds trust between what I call the 3 silos (grassroots, academia and leadership). I firmly believe we will only full move forward if we move forward as human beings and this is one way to create the foundation to do that.

“Who are you? You are no one to anyone.” I hear this one a lot. Uneducated, unaccredited, unaffiliated…the things we use to shut people down and tune them out. There is no doubt that there are people out there who are trapped in their addictions. There are contraries that seem to rub everyone the wrong way. There are people trapped in poverty issues and it is hard to listen to them; especially when some of the consequences they deal with are from their own dysfunction. They are still your people. When someone like me comes to you with a concern (non-drinker, non-smoker, smart, researched, articulate); and your reaction is this…I question where your loyalty is to those who are even more marginalized. I have bumped into this “either you are with me or you are against me” rhetoric a lot over my years. It is completely unproductive for our communities. We are nations of a few hundred or a few thousand; we don’t have the luxury of dismissing anyone who desires to be involved in whatever capacity they desire to be involved. Yet, we allow it. We allow the dysfunction to continue. We allow the lack of communication to continue. It gets clouded up with confidentiality clauses and bureaucracy. “Everyone is so busy and no one understands”. Not true. Some people understand and are capable of communicating effectively-we used to call them “runners”. We just don’t use them anymore. People think that it isn’t a necessity in today’s day and age but I believe that it is more true today than at any other time in our history. There are different language registers according to how much access to education and privilege you have. Back in the 70’s, only a handful of people had access to the language register to understand and counteract the issues coming forward in the 1969 White Paper. We were able to mobilize because most of us had common knowledge and experience. Now we have a couple of generations that have moved into privilege. We have a communication breakdown between those raised in poverty and those raised in privilege. Those raised in privilege get the better education and move into positions of authority in our communities quicker. Yet, they do not understand the struggle and the realities of it. They are sheltered from it (as they should be) but it manifests as intolerance. We spend our whole lives in the pit or struggling to get out of the pit. One way out of the pit on our Nations is through leadership. Once we escape; we will do almost anything to not go back there. The problem is that although you are out of the pit…70% of us are still there. You need the runners because they transmit the information between the generations, between the sexes and between the very different languages (even if it is all in English or French) between leadership and membership. They are in every community; social butterflies, seem to know everyone, talk to anyone and are highly liked. They tend to be considered “trouble makers” because they are truth tellers but that is why they are so important. You need to find a way to communicate with almost “ALL” your members. The lack of trust due to the Indian Act system requires that you start using the strengths of the members of your community. These people are strengths and assets even though they are not always the most popular.

We are also not using the tools available to us most effectively. There are very few reasons for information to be plugged up at the organizational level anymore. There are so many tools and free sources available but the thinking is that if people have access to the information that affects them; they are not going to be able to discern it appropriately. This again is not true. It is just the old way of doing things that needs to change. Chiefs organizations, tribal organizations and other advocacy groups have had their funding slashed to capacity. You no longer have the right to delay getting that information to the public because there are many people ready and willing to dissect and analyse that information through a critical lens and feed it back to you. Sometimes those people have the ability to see new paths or pitfalls. Sometimes they can warn you in advance or they can help strategize around that issue. But currently, we have to wait until the last minute because it hasn’t been “vetted” through the lawyers or consultants or even worse…consulted in high level meetings devoid of any form of inclusion at all. Instead of keeping the information bottle-necked at the organizations; open it up. Put the information online, create discussion groups and online resources for people to be able to pick up the ball if they so wish. Whatever limited funding is available should be directed towards inclusion and distribution of information. We have to start working together and that won’t happen without access to the information. We will not always agree but the more information is available and distributed openly…the less opportunity for the “divide and conquer”.

“We own ‘such and such’ First Nation”, I will never forget the conversation that brought this forward. Please recognize that the lawyers and the consultants work for you. The more divided your community is; the more power they assume. They love it when the community is at odds with itself. They make lots of money. Your place of privilege gives you access to them but beware; some of them are very aware that you will be replaced in the next election and their agenda is the one moving forward. If you have people telling you how to oppress your people, if they are quick to sue members against each other, if they tell you not to worry about anything they will handle it…it’s probably time to re-consider how much you rely on them and alienate your own people. Every dime you pay out for these guys is a dime never recovered in the economy of your nation. They don’t buy homes on the reserve…they don’t buy cars on the reserve…they don’t do anything to re-invest that money onto the reserve. Don’t be deceived; they may write up your economic development agreements…it’s their job. That money paid out never ever comes back to your community…ever but in some cases they have more control over the everyday functions of the Nation than the Council. Some Councils will do absolutely nothing without consulting the lawyers first. That is a violation of the trust we placed in you when we voted for you. They know the law…they don’t know the people, the traditions or the oral history. Without the relationship to the land and the People (not just C and C) they should never be allowed to dictate governance. As difficult as it is; ways of listening to divergent voices is necessary at this time. I speak for myself when I say, I don’t think hoarding the information and reinforcing the standard through litigation is effective for anyone anymore. We need strategies to begin working through our communication barriers. We need to find ways to bring the contraries to the table, to listen through the issues and create effective new forms of communication that allow people their basic human dignity instead of shut them down.

“What are those women doing now?” I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there is an issue with how women are treated. Most grassroots initiatives are motivated, initiated and supported by women. It’s true; usually we are going in a different direction than the very clinical and business minded influence of the AFN. If you want real grassroots engagement then you must have real grassroots women at the table. We carry the burden for the water. We carry the burden for the future generations. I have been placed in situations that astound me in how disrespectful the treatment of women is. I have seen women’s ceremonies interrupted. I have seen women’s agenda’s dictated. I have seen the resentment of men when women don’t “get with the program”. The current structure is inadequate for real engagement. It is too easy to tokenize our issues with it. Elders should be more than just the prayer at the beginning and end of the meeting. The women should have the opportunity to speak on all issues concerning the environment, women and children. The youth need effective advocacy and mentorship. It blows my mind that anyone can consider the once a year conference and the handful of presentations from the Woman’s Council adequate. That kind of consultation has brought us nothing but long term dysfunction in our relationships and ability to work effectively together.

I apologize for the length of this letter. I will make one more point and then I will leave you with this. It is possible. There is a person in my life who is in leadership. We have disagreed so much in the last year. Most people would believe that I have actually told him to “get your head out of your ass”. We were on such polar opposite perspectives about inclusion, social media and consultation. He has an ability to push my buttons pretty effectively. Once I got to know him better, I began to recognize that he was coming across as arrogant and dismissive because he had not quite developed the kispakasêw he needed to work with me and people like me. I don’t see leadership as a privilege. It is an obligation and a duty so to me; there is no room for ego. We have had many many many disagreements. I have said some horrible stuff. He has said some horrible stuff. We licked our wounds and carried on the work. After a year of working together; sharpening each other and sharing knowledge; I no longer feel the need to fight with him to understand what I am saying. He gets it. He is walking it out…as I walk out the things he has taught me. We are strong, stubborn and willful people but we are committed to the future generations and to helping our people. I have learned to trust him. He has learned to trust me. We recognize each other’s importance and respect that we cannot do what the other can do. It is possible to heal our Nations and work collaboratively. It takes honesty. It takes transparency. It takes the willingness to put in the work and it takes the willingness to lay down our egos. It is perhaps the most difficult of all things to do.

Thank you again for this opportunity. These are just my thoughts. I am just an artist. Do what you will with them.


Dawn Marie Marchand

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