The Grand Valley State University (GVSU) School of Social Work and the Native American Student Association hosted a screening of the newly released documentary, The Canary Effect last night in Grand Rapids. This documentary, produced by Bastard Fairy films, is a powerful critique of the genocidal policies that Euro-Americans have committed against Native North Americans. The documentary deals with the various the various forms of genocide as have been defined by the 1948 Genocide Convention, policies like outright extermination policies, forced removal from Native land, government boarding schools, and the ongoing consequences of these policies – alcoholism, poverty, and suicide. The film features several scholars, such as Charles Abourezk, Troy Johnson, and Ward Churchill, the last of whom was mentioned by one of the panelists as being a controversial figure even in the Native community.
Following the documentary, there was a panel of several area Native Americans, including Dr. Simone Jonaitis with GVSU, Shannon Martin, Lee Sprague, Roger Williams and Ben Williams. Levi Rickert moderated the panel and posed several questions. The first question asked the panelist for general reactions to the film. Several of the panelists said it was very painful to watch, but that it provided important information on the history of what has been done to Native people. Lee Sprague said that it speaks to the fact that we are still an occupied people. “I always tell people that I reside from the territories currently occupied by the state of Michigan.” Shannon Martin said she knew “what was coming next in terms of the conquest, forced relocation, to boarding schools to substance abuse, or what we call weapons of mass destruction.” She also said, “It is important that these truths are taught and that we unlearned what we have been taught.” Dr. Jonaitis said, “for me what was so painful was to be able to put names and faces of people that I know that are in my family that these policies have affected.” All of the panelists agreed that showing this kind of film is necessary for all people if any real healing is to take place.
The next question asked was “are we victims?” Ben Williams said, “we are not playing victims, we are suffering from the post traumatic effects of the history of what has been done to us. Every day we are being exposed to what the US has done to us.” Shannon Martin said, “what we are doing is truth telling to promote what really happened to us. In many ways looking at this history is another way of acknowledging what happened to our ancestors. I have family who were subjected to the Mt. Pleasant boarding school. For my grandmother to not be able to share her language with her daughter…. we are not victims, we are survivors.” Lee Sprague says that when he was younger he had a great deal of anger directed at white people. “I had to make a choice of what to do with my anger. I don’t know that we are the biggest victims, we have to get there together. We all have a responsibility of being human.”
Levi Rickert then asked, “What are the strengths of Native communities?” Shannon Martin responded first by saying, “it’s our resiliency and adaptability. Our people adapted when they were forcibly removed. We used whatever we can to adapt and that is one of our strengths. We use the materials around us to survive. Also, our humor is our strength. Our humor is not well known since there is this stereotype of natives being a stoic people.” Ben Williams said, “despite hundreds of years in attempting to assimilate us, we still have our teachings, our ceremonies and that many of us still practice the belief in the seventh generation.” Roger Williams added that “another strength is the land, what we call mother…we actually look upon you all as renters.”
The fourth question posed to the panel was “What does the future hold for our people?” Lee Sprague responded that it is “something we need to figure out together. I think we are seeing the beginning. Our people are starting to come back home. How are we going receive them? These are generational stories that are playing out and we need to continue that.” Ben Williams thinks, “it depends on what new fights are ahead of us. You look at the Grand Rapids Public School closing of our charter school or the state taking away funding. These are the fights that will probably determine our future.” Shannon Martin felt that “there needs to be quite a bit of healing in our own communities first. Until we do that our people are going to be slaves to neo-colonial thought and systems that enslave us. We need to talk about our clan practices. We don’t need to promote a nuclear family model. My family goes all the way to the tip of South America. Our language will play a big role in this, so we need to save our languages.” Dr. Jonaitis emphasized the importance of language as well, “it will help us to understand ourselves better. This land is also important and particularly in Michigan the preservation of water is critical.” Roger Williams stated, “when White people realize that the government policies are destroying the earth that will be a turning point. Our prophecy says that White people will look to us for teachings on how to live with the earth.” Lee Sprague also mentioned the importance of water for the future. “It is so screwed up when you have 20% of the world’s fresh water and our economy is bankrupt, as is our culture. We have holidays devoted to consumerism. It is all a symptom of the sickness of our society.”
The last question from the moderator asked, “What can non-Indians do to support the Indian community?” Roger Williams emphasized “something as simple as getting our curriculum to tell the truth. Look at what is still being taught about our history in schools and get that changed.” Dr. Jonaitis continued on that theme by saying “we all have been educated in a euro-centric way. How do we want our children to see the world? We have to tell our stories through a variety of lenses. We are all responsible to listen to each other and our stories.” Shannon Martin felt that “we need to find alliances. We need to have Native people in different capacities, as teachers, academics, writers, etc. We need Native people in all these fields. Ben Williams said, “re-educate yourselves. Make sure your kids are not being taught these same lies. We need to work against celebrating things like Columbus Day. I hope to have a rally next year against Columbus Day. We need to take on other issues like the use of Native mascots.” Lee Sprague concluded by making the observation, “Native people are not in the science fiction literature, meaning we are not part of the future of this country. So, we need to make sure that we are part of the future of this country in whatever way we can.”