4. 20. 2022
The Land With Whom
The Russian Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has given his blessing to Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. And although the US doesn’t have a national church or a single religious leader, evangelical royalty Franklin Graham gave his blessing to Donald Trump. Both have made statements about these heads of state being great protectors of their faiths, a mantle that these political leaders have worn with pride. Such relationships may seem like they violate, or at least play fast and loose with, the separation of church and state, but this separation has never been anything but a myth. People insist that it means the state cannot impose a religion on its citizens, but from the moment the Europeans arrived on these shores with the intention of remaining, the governments that would become the US and Canada have done exactly that. From praying towns and missions to residential schools, plantation churches, and the public display of the ten commandments in US courthouses, these Western nations have positioned themselves as protectors of Christianity, and now Putin is positioning himself as the protector of Russian Orthodoxy. The historic relationship between church and state in Russia is complicated by the official atheism of the Soviet governments, but even Stalin knew enough to rally support for the Second World War by reinstating the Patriarchy of Moscow and All Russia when Hitler invaded.
It is never good news when a state makes itself the protector of a religion. It certainly isn’t good news for the people within those borders who have a different religion, and it isn’t good news for the members of that religion who live abroad. Consider how quickly Westerners first noticed and then turned against Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11.
Writer and filmmaker Omar Mouallem’s book Praying to the West documents the history of mosques in the Americas and notes that Muslims arrived here with the first slave ships. Muslims continued to arrive as immigrants and migrants, fanning out across the continents alongside other settlers. Consider how quickly their loyalty to Canada or the US came into question in the early 2000s, these USians and Canadians now viewed with suspicion, as if by virtue of being Muslim their loyalty was implicitly elsewhere despite decades, if not centuries, of relationship in this place. Although Muslims had long been a staple Hollywood villain, in this intensified scrutiny, screenwriters quickly replaced Cold War-era Russians with Muslims as Hollywood’s sleeper cell villain, their loyalty and patriotism a cover for their “true intentions.” The persistent stoking of these anti-Islamic fires led to the Muslim Travel Ban early in Trump’s presidency, and while the proposed Islamophobic hotline for reporting “barbaric cultural practices” in Canada arguably contributed to the failure of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s re-election bid in 2015, two years later the Québec government passed a law banning face coverings in the name of public safety. Muslims are not safe in Christian countries.
In the anthology On Antisemitism, the Black queer physicist and cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s essay “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century” argues, in part, that as a Jewish state Israel reproduces an ideology of religious supremacy (that is, the supremacy of its Jewish over its non-Jewish residents) that echoes the white Christian supremacy of Canada and the US. Because rights are tied to Jewish identity in the Israeli state, the ability to legitimately claim Jewish identity is legally controlled, and violence against Palestinians and others is rationalized in the name of safety. This is a kind of “safety” that makes others profoundly unsafe. Not only does it create an internal hierarchy of whose cultural needs are met and whose are treated as unimportant, but it also allows for what church historian Vince Bantu describes as “holy violence” in his book A Multitude of All Peoples. Bantu is writing there about the early Church in Rome and the shift that took place when Rome went from persecuting Christians to protecting them. To paraphrase the radical educator Paulo Freire, rather than taking this moment to seek liberation for everyone who had lived under Rome’s power, these now protected and powerful Christians became the oppressors and wielded the violence of the state, including murder and the destruction of pagan idols, against others. This “holy violence” was present in the founding of the US and Canada, and it remains present today. Native sweat lodges are still destroyed by those who call them pagan; synagogues and mosques are still vandalized and threatened.
Ethnonationalisms are no better. In his book Blood and Soil, historian Ben Kiernan takes an ambitious look at a world history of genocide – in which a belief in some kind of ethnic purity combines with imperial ambitions and a cult of antiquity, producing the violence of ethnic cleansing in pursuit of land. Religion can provide that cult of antiquity: what better legitimacy for an ambitious state than a pedigree infused with religious authority going back centuries, if not all the way back to creation itself? And whether it is religion or ethnicity or political beliefs that are used to legitimate the state, it all comes down to purity: how we define it and how we maintain it. Nationalisms draw lines around our purity and give us a geography as well as an ideology to protect.
I read these books as an Ojibwe-Anishinaabekwe, with the hashtag #LandBack embedded in my thinking. Like the historical narratives discussed there, our claims to place rest on ancient beliefs. The Anishinaabe creation story puts the place of our creation in what is now northwestern Ontario, near where an imaginary line separates it from Manitoba. This is our place, Manito Gitigan. The place where creator lowered down the first man. The place where Nanaboozhoo left to walk the land and see what and who else was there. I know the archaic stories of migration and movement, how we all left Africa and then went back and then left again, travelling through Berengia and then by boat down the western coast of what was not yet North America. I know the stories revealed in the breadcrumbs left by our ancestors through genetics, linguistics, and the archeological record. I know that like maize we are the result of generations of migration and hybridization, of travel and being rooted and uprooted and finding home again and again. But I also know that we are manomin, we are wild rice that grows unchanged where and how the creator planted us at the beginning of all things. I know that somehow the Anishinaabe emerged as a people in a particular place and our creation story ties us to it.
So I read these books and more and I think about Land Back and resisting colonial encroachment on our lands, I think about asserting our presence on our lands from coast to coast to coast, and I ask myself what is different about Land Back in comparison to these religious or ethnic nationalisms?
The borders are different. Not in the sense that they would be drawn in different places in the context of Land Back, but in the sense of how and if they would even exist. Because if national borders form the limits of a nation’s authority, what does that mean for Indigenous peoples who existed before the colonists taught us to draw lines around what was ours and who we were? If we have no hard lines drawn around us, then our authority doesn’t come to an abrupt end at the Great Lakes or along the 49th parallel. Our authority rests in a centre and then diffuses outward into overlapping layers of claim.
I am Ojibwe Anishinaabe. That is a claim to a place, a very specific place where nearby layers of claim overlapping with the Cree have resulted in Oji-Cree, a language and a people that are both and neither. I live in Niagara where the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg and the Haudenosaunee learned to live in a shared territory through the Dish With One Spoon Treaty. Elements of our creation story shift as you move westward across Anishinaabe homelands, reflecting relationship with other peoples. And I think that blending, that comfort with multiplicity is a key difference, in comparison to settler nationalisms that tend towards systems of absolute power. Rather than hard boundaries, we have what Anishinaabe legal scholar Aaron Mills, in his dissertation “Miinigowiziwin: all that has been given for living well together: one vision of Anishinaabe constitutionalism,” calls “a steady gradient in the thickness of lived relationships.” Nations and citizenship tend to be static, with boundaries drawn around them, and with ideas about religious or cultural purity that require constant protecting and defending. Communities, by contrast, are pliable and elastic, bending and stretching in relationship with human and greater-than-human relatives. Kinship is open and expansive in a way that citizenship is not.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about ancestries. She is Somali-Cree, with an Irish grandfather. And after doing some research in her family tree, she found Assiniboine, Saulteaux, and Métis relations as well as settlers, which would make sense given the geography of this portion of her maternal relatives. I suspect that if she were able to take a similar dive into her paternal family, she would find a similar multitude of relatives from the horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean that she has the lived experiences of all these ancestors (as another friend has said, sometimes our ancestors’ communities are not our communities), but they are still part of her, and they represent places on a map where relatives came together. We are all like this. Ideas about purity are nonsense, but they are also powerful, and when connected to land – and to beliefs that land is a thing to be possessed – these ideas become dangerous.
Mills reminds us that land is a person with whom we stand in relation. He cites Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear, who says, “To us land, as part of creation, is animate. It has spirit. Place is for the interrelational network of all creation. When we talk of Blackfoot territory, Cree territory, or Ojibway territory, we are really talking about the place where the interrelational network occurs.” When I talk about the place of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe, that place is a relative as surely as my cousins are. It is, in the words of Kānaka Maoli geneticist Keolu Fox, my ancestor.
Land Back is the only way forward. I joked one time on Twitter that there were no problems facing our society today that could not be resolved by restoring the land to Indigenous peoples. Twitter users presented various social problems, from abolition and inequity to climate change and war, all of which I was able to address with pithy remarks about Land Back, because that framework is not simply a change in ownership. It is a reimagining of how our society is structured. It is a return to those centres that diffuse outward into steady gradients in the thickness of our lived relationships.
The centre is created by the act of revolving around it.
When I was a child, we had a round swimming pool. And one of the games that we played was to create a whirlpool. Together we all ran in a circle, creating a current that swirled around in one direction, and then when it was strong enough we either floated with the current or we turned and tried to push against it. It took only one or two of us to create the current, but it was more difficult to reverse it. To reverse it required more of us pushing against the water.
We can do this. We can create new centres to diffuse out from, but these new centres we revolve around must be the Indigenous peoples restored to the land with whom they are in relationship. Without that restoration, we’re left with just another form of settler colonialism. More inclusive and just, perhaps, but still built on Indigenous displacement. We can challenge the various bordering regimes that enclose us, that promise safety but in fact make us profoundly unsafe. Whether they’re the borders between states, or the internal borders of prisons and class, these lines and the violence that goes into preserving our false notions of purity are neither inevitable nor inescapable. There is a Māori proverb: ka mua, ka muri. Walking backwards into the future. Land Back holds the promise of an old way to structure new relationships and build a future rooted in kinship.
Patty Krawec is an Anishinaabe and Ukrainian writer and speaker from Lac Seul First Nation. She is active in the Fort Erie Native Friendship Center and is a member of the Strong Water Singers. She is the cohost of the Medicine for the Resistance podcast and cofounder of the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation, which collects funds and disperses them to Indigenous people and organizations. Her work has been published in Sojourners and Canadian Living. Krawec is a member of Chippawa Presbyterian Church and lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario.