Article 12 – Indigenous Peoples and Land: Jack Davis’s No Sugar, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Sia Figiel Where We Once Belonged, and Kayano Shigeru’s Our Land Was a Forest
All over the world, “there are many kinds of Aboriginal [groups] that can be defined in relation to interests in, and associations with, land” (McLean 218). Indigenous peoples have a special connection and relationship to the land. The connection between Indigenous populations and their land is physical, social, spiritual, and cultural. Their wellness is focused entirely on the land, and “[it] is a rich and diverse concept that is both specific to time, space, and place and yet informed by common themes that emerge within and across the expanse of global Indigenous diversity” (Krementz et al. 33). Indigenous peoples also call land ‘Mother Earth’ because the land provides everything needed for their sustenance. Land and Indigenous peoples are one, and “since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have been using connections with the land, culture, and ceremony to prevent illness, treat disease, and maintain holistic wellness” (Krementz 23-24).
Indigenous people do not ‘own’ their land, the land owns them, or the earth owns them. Indigenous people practice land-based teachings because of the knowledge that they possess on managing resources and adequately taking care of everything inhabiting the land, while successfully passing down this crucial education or knowledge to the next generation. This is obviously attested in Kayano Shigeru’s memoir, Our Land Was a Forest. As a leader of the Ainu people in Japan, Shigeru opened a private museum in his native land, the Nibutani area of Biratori, Hokkaidō in 1992. In his memoir, Shigeru describes how his people take the land as their God, “the river is the land for a God named Okikurmikamuy. This God teaches folk wisdom on building houses, fish raise millet, and so forth” (7). This idea of learning from the land creates an “emotional connection to land as ‘home’ and nation, and a sense of responsibility to care for land (DeMartini & Hampton 247). Indigenous people respect Mother Earth because it not only educates them, but it is a living being that is thanked daily for the provisions given to the population, as Shigeru’s father prayed, “O god of the rabbit, thank you for bringing us much fat meat” (Shigeru 64).
Indigenous peoples and their land are in oneness and should not be disrupted; otherwise, everything goes off-balance. In the course Indigenous Literature of the World, which I took at University College of the North, four of the texts highlight Indigenous people identifying themselves with the land: No Sugar, a play by Jack Davis, an Australian Indigenous activist, No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, an Igbo writer from Nigeria, Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, a Samoan writer from a Polynesian island, and Our Land Was a Forest. The four Indigenous texts tell different stories, but they all highlight the disruption and disconnection from their land because of colonization. Colonialization, both internally and externally, such as the Ainu peoples being oppressed by the Japanese, and externally, by the white colonizers in the other three books. No matter who the colonizers are, their practice of colonizing others is to create ways in which their colonizing activities are “enacted through diverse practices such as resource exploitation and expropriation of Indigenous lands, forced attendance at residential schools designed to assimilate, systemic racism, extinguishment of rights, and forced welfare dependency” (Krementz 26). The colonizers “in their attempts to make sense and take control of their new world, implemented a range of strategies with respect to the environment and the Indigenous inhabitants” (McLean 213). These strategies are implemented as schools for westernized education, religion for conformity, and building infrastructures on Indigenous lands in the name of providing Indigenous peoples jobs, which is a way to push them further off their land. Once Indigenous peoples leave their land, they lose their identity. A core tenet of Western civilization of the Indigenous population is the systemic plan to eradicate Indigenous language, traditions, and culture.
The four Indigenous texts also tell stories of the colonizers thinking that Indigenous education is inferior to Western education. “As a matter of fact, to Indigenous people, land is the first teacher, and understandings of the centrality of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with Land is the core to educational development” (Zinga & Styres 315). Westerners ignore the idea of land-based teachings but impose their education on Indigenous people because they know that education and language go hand in hand. Thus, wherever they landed, they start religion and school to strengthen their colonization and to ensure that their educational formalities are being entertained. In the text, Where We Once Belonged, one of the native characters, Alofa, her friends, Lily and Moa, Johnny boy, and the entire community worship Western education so much that they believe “Mrs. Samasoni’s class to be something to be proud of” (Figiel 178) and the “best thing that ever happened to Falelua Primary” (176). Miss Cunningham, a Samasoni’s peace corps’ visitor, “spoke only English and didn’t understand us” (Figiel 169). Moreover, English texts replaced their own stories, and they are forced to bring the English texts home after school. Alofa’s teacher got her to “recite I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth” (172).
In No Longer at Ease, Mr. Green, an institutionalized colonial employee in Nigeria, and Obi Okonkwo’s boss, feels the need to mention how his colonizers brought Africa and Obi “Western education but that it is no use to him” (Achebe 4). Obi Okonkwo is a son of Umuofia, and the villagers are very happy to have sent him off to Europe to get a Western education. Obi particularly finds it humiliating to think that he must speak English in the Colonizer’s presence, even when talking with a fellow villager, with whom they can communicate better in their native tongue. Obi quickly notes that colonizers would “naturally assume that one had no language of one’s own” (57). Obi’s people are also angry at him because he did not fulfill their wish to study Western law to “handle their land cases against the colonizers” (8). Once again, Western education is worshipped, and Obi’s father, “Mr. Okonkwo believed utterly and completely in the things of the white man [he believes] the symbol of the white man’s power was the written word, or better still, the printed word” (144). Mr. Okonkwo holds dear the text from the Colonizer’s bible “that fear is the beginning of wisdom” (12) and fears eating kola nuts for ritualistic purposes because it is a way of sacrificing “to idols” (59), thus, rejecting his own culture’s teachings and ways of life. However, his Western knowledge is flawed because he does not realize that a cross is also an idol. Similarly, Clara, Obi’s girl-friend, chooses to speak in English with Obi rather than their own native language. Thus, the consequence of Western education is denouncing one’s heritage and culture. Colonialists decide what to teach and how to teach to Indigenous people.
While in Achebe’s No Longer at East, Obi is sent away to England for an education, the Australian natives in Jack Davis’ No Sugar, such as the Millamurra/Munday family, are not offered any opportunity for education. The colonial employee, Mr. Neal, strongly believes that Aborigines should not be encouraged to read because “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (Davis 90). He believes that once these Indigenous people are educated, that they will develop ideas, and that is unacceptable in his colonial world. However, at the Moore River Sunday school, the native children, Cissie, Joe, and David, are taught about “baby Jesus in a manger” (83), by sister Eileen, the Moore River outdoor Sunday School teacher. The contrast between Mr. Neal and Sister Eileen’s idea of educating the natives is evident, crossing a moral ground on what is right from wrong. Like the Millamurra/Munday children, Alofa and her friends in Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged, are being taught “who betrayed Jesus” (229), and to “read the Bible correctly in meek and humble voices” (140). The main goal of Western education is to teach the younger generation how to speak the colonizers’ language properly in their native land. Indigenous peoples are constantly noticed perfecting the colonizers language. Cissie, the daughter of Sam and Milly, in No Sugar is learning the colonizers’ language so well that she even corrects her younger brother, David’s grammar, “gave it to him, not give” (Davis 88).
No Longer at Ease shows Obi speaking ‘is’ and ‘was’ (Achebe 37), with which his villagers are not impressed at all. Alofa and her friends in Where We Once Belonged are showing off on who is more knowledgeable on “what is a daffodil” (Figiel 173), a William Wordsworth’s poem, ‘I wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (Figiel 172). Quite the opposite, Kayano Shigeru’s grandmother in Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir, was not happy with her grandson being colonized with the Japanese colonial education, and so she hid his school belongings so well that he “had fallen behind in his studies” (Shigeru 49). Shigeru’s grandmother swiftly cut off his interest, as she chopped the desired roots of her grandson wanting colonized education because she knew the alienation from his ancestral roots that comes with colonized teachings.
Among Indigenous people, an oral storytelling in their own language is to “deep layers of a [country’s] history of individuals from so many different nations driving each other out or peacefully cohabitating and creating hybrid cultures […] but, not without impact on the original inhabitants” (Matrona 140). The land teaches balance, and it holds the ancestors’ secrets because “the Ainu are not the only ones who eat the salmon from the land. The invisible fore goddess and other goddesses share it with the Natives of the land. If no salmon is caught, both the Ainu and the gods suffer from hunger” (Shigeru 66). Westerners need to understand that the “recognition of the importance of using land and culture in strategies to promote, restore, and maintain holistic wellness has been well known and acted upon within Indigenous communities since time immemorial” (Zambakari 28). However, this idea is being proven difficult for Westerners to understand since they believe that their knowledge is the only truthful and sensible knowledge and are therefore held above Indigenous ways of knowing. “This false assumption has structurally facilitated the devaluation of Indigenous bits of knowledge, such as in the case of using connections with land and culture as health interventions” (Krementz 31). The land lessons that Indigenous people teach are essential for the environment, and they provide their own economy, health resources, and spiritual guide. For the Ainu peoples, “the gods were invisible and everywhere (56). The Arawak natives “of Jamaica were able to sustain their economy and sovereignty through fishing profits and trade” (Matrona 134), just like the Native Americans, African, Asia, and Oceania natives did. However, “landgrabs […] consistently violate the livelihood and fundamental rights of the occupants of the land” (He & Xue 126).
Indigenous peoples believe that everything has a spirit and that they are all connected on the land. Their stories are also filled with places and animals that “serve important roles in creation stories have a spirit of their own. Their voices are just as crucial, if not more important, than human voices” (Matrona 139). Western colonizers disregard these spiritualities, and they conform the Indigenous population to believe in their God, be it by will or by force. The idea of the color white is mentioned for some importance to colonization. Samoan adolescent, Alofa, mentions “White Sunday” (Figiel 5), where they would complete chores of fetching bible books and hymnals around. Obe, too, an Igbo, held a “white handkerchief” (Achebe 2) in his possession. While the idea around this is ambiguous, white seems to be right in these aspects.
The brainwashing of Indigenous peoples for control of their land is portrayed in these texts also. Soia, a devoted Samoan Christian, will “make up sins just to have something interesting to say” (Figiel 69), and Obi’s father is a devoted “Christian convert” (Achebe 8). There are “pictures of Jesus Christ everywhere” (Figiel 28) and “Bibles practically everywhere” (Figiel 65), which is ironic when the colonizer “Mr. Brown knew about Jesus but was not a churchgoer. His favorite words were ‘fucking-fucking-Jesus-Christ’” (Figiel 7). Alofa’s sleepover friend had “Jesus is the reason pillowcases” (Figiel 42), and Poasa, her cousin, is conformed to Mormonism” (Figiel 32), which shows how diverse the banner of Christianity goes in Samoa and how deeply rooted it is. The notion that “only 144,000 will be welcomed into God’s kingdom” (Figiel 80) is a Jehovah’s Witness’ belief.
With their obligatory nature, these Westerners will break ethical barriers to get the land they desire from Indigenous peoples, whether it be by will or by force.
Like Columbus, Colonizers began to use more blatant genocidal force [when Indigenous people reject the idea of being colonized]. The Colonists began to define themselves in opposition to the Indigenous peoples. The focus on connections with the land and sea (and fish) were seen as silly and illogical, and the colonists began to view the natural world as something useful only for economic exploitation [and] the spirits of the land were ignored and dishonored by the European colonists. (Matrona 134)
Our Land Was a Forest showcases how the Ainu’s colonizers, the Japanese, “ignore the ways of the Ainu, who had formulated hunting and woodcutting practices in accordance with the cycles of nature and came up with arbitrary laws” (Shigeru 9) to bend the Indigenous people to their will. Shigeru Natives of the land will be forced to “become a criminal” (60), just as Jimmy, the son of the Millamurra family in Davis’s No Sugar is forced to become a criminal on his own land, due to his resilient character. Shigeru’s father “was being arrested for salmon poaching. The Salmon he caught every night to feed us brothers, the old women in the neighborhood, the Gods were off-limits” (57). Colonizers, no matter who they are, whether they are in the west or in the east, all effectively use these methods in “forcibly separating Indigenous peoples from their land, which directly inhibits traditional land-based cultural practices. European settlers also created laws to prevent and criminalize Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices” (Krementz 25).
In order to survive in the land that was taken over by the colonizers, Indigenous peoples kept their orality regardless of all the atrocities that were being done towards them. Some resilient members beat the odds and bring back remembrance to their peoples about who they are and the importance of the land and spirituality from which they came, while others failed to bring their people back to where they once belonged. Mrs. Samasoni, the narrator’s school teacher in Where We Once Belonged, is a “graduate who returned” from New Zealand (177), and she was of a colonial mind. However, Siniva, the narrator’s aunt, came back to Samoa from New Zealand with a B. A and an M.A, and rejected Western Education. She then stopped going to the Colonizer’s church altogether and “went around reminding people of how ancient Samoa was” (191). As a result of Western colonization, she was only seen as mad to her people, which is an uncomfortable place to be because all her people were already poisoned by Western education, and they have forgotten their own language and culture so quickly. Similar to the young Igbo man, Obi, he felt this exact way as he “no longer believed in [the colonizers] God” (Achebe 65). Once the memoirist “became actively conscious of his Ainu roots, he started his collection of artifacts unique to his culture and prevents them from being taken away” (Shigeru 100). The idea that “native plants, like the indigenous people and their stories, resist and endure through time” (Matrona 136), has been proven true in most cases when they can keep their ways of life in their orality or have it recorded in the text the Westernized way.
On the topic of his language and culture, Kayano Shigeru states that his “land, Ainu Mosir, had been invaded, language stripped, ancestral remains robbed, the blood of living Ainu taken, and even the few remaining utensils were carried away” (99). The idea of being alienated from one’s culture and identity means a total disconnect, and irreparable damages being done, where the younger generation will not have the traditional knowledges and secrets to move forward.
Interactions with land are beyond the capacity of the English language to adequately capture the nuanced and spiritual activity that can be described in Aboriginal languages […] Youth need to be able to be grounded in their cultural traditions and to understand how traditional knowledge can move forward into the next generation. (Zinga 315)
When it comes to seizing lands from Indigenous peoples, the decimation of culture, identity, and heritage is sure. Some Indigenous populations had it worse than others, however. For the Beothuk tribe in Canada, “once settlement began, the feuding [for land] turned into an open hunting season against them [and by] 1829, there were practically no Beothuk left” (Dickason & Newbigging 55). Extinction, sometimes, was the way of Colonizer’s problem-solving for the Indigenous population and their collective ownership “land deprivation through forceful removal” (Zambakari 196). Removing and unsettling Indigenous people from their land means a total disconnect that could result in “cycles of oppression being repeated through generations in indigenous communities” (Krementz et al. 26). Disconnection with the land happens because “identity is linked to land and acts as a source of livelihood, wealth, social peace, and in some cases hold ceremonial and religious values” (Zambakari 199).
Colonizers, no matter whether they are from the west or east, internally or externally, will forcefully separate Indigenous peoples off their land, which directly hinders natives traditional land-based cultural practices and ceremonies. Indigenous peoples in the world have a special connection to their land. The connection they feel with the land is oneness with their bodies, minds, spirits, and souls. Their entire being for survival is focused entirely on their land, which is rich in resources and provides everything they could need. In the land that these Indigenous people dwell, they are taught by the land to build houses, hunt for food, and take care of the environment. To survive in the land that was taken over by colonizers, Indigenous peoples must keep their orality intact. Mother-Earth provides, and in turn, her children take care of her and all the present inhabitants within the circle of life. Everything that is needed for sustenance is available on the land. The land’s secrets are known only to its original inhabitants, and therefore, Westerners must be more open to receiving Indigenous teachings and their holistic approaches to health information and theories.
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Author’s Bio: Sandreka Kaczoroski is a third-year student at the University College of the North and is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Education Integrated Stream Program (BEDIS). Her major is in English, and her minor is in the General Sciences. Sandreka is a twenty-eight-year-old Jamaican woman who is married to her Canadian husband. In their sixth year of marriage, the couple is looking forward to welcoming their first baby this June. Sandreka considers herself as the Eagle, because the Eagle soars to new heights even if there are storms. ‘Striving for Excellence’ has always been her motto, and failure is not an option for Sandreka.
Instructor’s Remarks: Sandreka Kaczoroski took the course, Indigenous Literature of the World, a third-year course cross-listed between the English and The Aboriginal and Northern Studies programs. In this seminar course, students explore the work of selected Indigenous writers from Africa, Australasia, and/or other parts of the world outside the Americas. The students are required to write a research paper about Indigenous Peoples’ Identity and Culture by integrating close textual readings and the application of critical theories. Sandreka’s “Indigenous Peoples and Land” analyzes how Indigenous peoples lost their identity first because they were taken away from their lands by the colonizers and then were forced to take Western education. Her close textual readings of the texts by global Indigenous authors reveal the close connection between Indigenous peoples’ identity and their lands. (Dr. Ying Kong)