Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Review: Brotherhood to Nationhood

[Peter McFarlane. Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movement. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1993.]

The fact that I graduated high school in Canada without knowing the name of George Manuel is pretty disgusting.

Oh, I know, there are lots more substantive things to be said about how conventional history is taught, how it normalizes the standpoint of property-owning, ostensibly straight, white men and reduces to tokens anyone else that it doesn't disappear entirely. I certainly agree that the memorizing of places and dates and the names of great leaders is not what history should be about, too -- a fixation on certain social movement leaders is a device sometimes used to either co-opt or demonize the dominant memory of a movement, in fact. And I didn't take the optional OAC* history credit my high school offered in Native Studies, so perhaps I would have learned his name there.

I shouldn't have had to, though. I did take a number of history courses in high school and I did pretty well in them, and if they could make me remember the name of a trivial, uninteresting-to-me figure like, say, Clifford Sifton a decade and a half later, surely they could've slipped in some post-Riel Rebellion indigenous leaders, too. And if the tokenizing, demonizing, co-opting, misrepresenting, oppression-erasing and -legitimizing, patronizing system of conventional history as taught in public high schools was going to tell me the name of a single indigenous leader in Canada in the 20th century, it could have chosen worse than to teach me Manuel's name. But even one was too many, apparently.

George Manuel belonged to the Shuswap Nation, whose lands lie in the interior of what is now British Columbia. As a militant leader on the local and provincial level, he became a part of the group of leaders that founded the National Indian Brotherhood, which was reorganized and renamed the Assembly of First Nations in the '80s. This organization represents the interests of that portion of the indigenous population that state-dictated blood quantum racism decides have "status", and the governments of the more than 600 reserves that are the only currently state-recognized land base of the 50+ nations indigenous to what is now Canada. His presidency took the NIB from a new, shaky organization that existed mostly on paper, was deeply in debt, and could not get the lowliest Department of Indian Affairs official to return its phone calls to an important force in national politics. He was also the founding president of the first ever international coalition of indigenous peoples, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. He was largely responsible for popularizing the idea that indigenous peoples constitute a "Fourth World", with its own social conditions, focus of struggle, and need for solidarity among those in similar situations.

Many leaders that rise to prominence in social movements tend to be more privileged than those they are leading, in some sense or other. For example, much of the leadership of "Third World" anti-colonial struggle in the middle of the twentieth century consisted of Western-educated elites from each country. I don't point this out to dimish the importance of either these struggles or the contributions of leaders with privilege, but it is one element of what can be a very tricky discussion of what leadership is, whether it is necessary or useful at all, and how it is/can be/should be connected to whatever gets defined as "not leadership".

This was not, however, an issue for Manuel, at least not in any conventional sense. He grew up on the small reserve of land that the settler state had left to his people. His formal schooling ended at grade two and his longest-term paid employment other than in political organizations was as a "boom man" at a sawmill. But one way in which his experience was uncommon among indigenous people in Canada in his generation was in his access to his traditional culture. He was raised by his grandparents, and they had grown up before colonization truly came to the remote areas of British Columbia -- the Shuswap people of that era traded a bit with white folk but more or less lived as they pleased, and as their ancestors had for thousands of years -- and had experienced its brutal onset in their lifetimes. Manuel was eight years old before he heard a word of English spoken. As well, the up-side of a nasty ten-year battle with tuberculosis that gave him a permanent limp was that he was able to get out of the residential school system after only two years, so he had a much shorter exposure to the brainwashing of the state-funded churches that ran the schools. In later life he observed that in "learning to see and hear only what the priests and brothers wanted you to see and hear, even the people we loved came to look ugly" and he described residential schools as "the laboratory and the production line of the colonial system."

Though I have heard criticisms of more recent national leaders of the indigenous movement in Canada becoming professionalized, bureaucratized, and distant from the people in the communities, this does not appear to have happened for Manuel. He was willing to lobby if that was what a particular situation called for, but he never lost site of the idea that any power that indigenous people might have in Canada would come from a mobilized grassroots. He placed great emphasis on talking to ordinary people, to elders, to youth. He felt it was important to get money from the state to fund the kinds of work that needed to be done, but his vision of the legitimate demands of indigenous peoples did not waver. He never allowed himself or any of his staff to be paid more than $18,000 a year. He organized direct action himself when he felt it was appropriate, supported those that chose to do more militant actions, crusaded vigorously against any attempt to extinguish aboriginal title to the land or to compromise on fundamental principles, and refused to condemn armed struggle. When he moved back to leading the provincial organization in British Columbia after six years of leading the NIB, he was quite deliberate not only in shaking up and revitalizing the above-ground organization and mobilizing the communities but also in setting up an underground organization, just in case. He was under no illusions about what the state was capable of.

The book itself is decent. It's a very straightforward biography, perhaps a little excessive in its adulation of the subject but only slightly hesitant to talk about some of his less savoury characteristics, particularly Manuel's shortcomings as a husband and father. The book seems to be based on both interviews and archival material. I read it because such biographies can often be a good way to get an overview of the general political situation in a given era, which is particularly important when it comes to movements that have not been written about enough, like twentieth century indigenous resistance in Canada. I would imagine that its coverage of the politics could have been more sophisticated, but at least it gave me something to start with. And at least now I not only know his name, but a little bit more, too.


[begin trivial footnote]

* -- OAC stands for Ontario Academic Credit. Ontario was one of the last, perhaps the last, jurisdiction in North America to have five years of high school for people intending to go on to university. Some time in the '80s they pretended to get rid of it by changing its name from "Grade 13" to "OAC", and changing the rules so that a small proportion of students that who were lucky enough to be good at school and were in a hurry could finish in four years. Most of us couldn't be bothered, at least the school I went to. The renamed Grade 13 was not actually abolished until a few years ago.

[end trivial footnote]

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1 comment:

Spartacus O'Neal said...

The Center for World Indigenous Studies saw fit to name its online library in honor of George Manuel.