sehtoskakew: “Aboriginal Principles of Witnessing” in the Canadian TRC

Witnessing and testimony are an essential component of every Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Canadian TRC is no exception. However, these key terms are ideologically loaded and have historically excluded Indigenous knowledge systems (for instance Delgamuukw v. British Columbia). While “Schedule ‘N'” (which contains the Canadian TRC mandate) gestures towards “Aboriginal principles of witnessing,” there is no concrete gesture towards unpacking precisely what these principles might entail or how they might interrupt Westernized systems. Further the homogenizing use of “Aboriginal” lumps all Indigenous knowledge systems together–precluding the possibility of difference and/or contradiction. This blog post unpacks one Indigenous principle of witnessing–the Cree notion of sehtoskakew–and illustrates the decolonizing potential of a witnessing that is contingent on community, rather than the possessive individualism of the Western “eye witness.”

On May 10, 2006, the Canadian federal government approved the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). As part of this agreement, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was initiated in order to both acknowledge and document the injustices and harms committed against Indigenous peoples living in Canada as a result of the residential school system. In the next trc logofive years (later extended to six), events were scheduled to take place across Canada that encouraged survivors to share their stories in a supportive, but public, forum. The testimony collected will go towards building a report for to the Government of Canada on “the effects and consequences of the IRS system” (Mandate; 2), which will be housed in Manitoba. Most specifically, the TRC was established to “contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation” (Mandate; 1) between Indigenous and non-Indigneous groups in Canada.

While the TRC is not a formal legal process, insofar as it does not hold subpoena powers and cannot compel attendance or participation (“Schedule ‘N’”), both “Schedule ‘N’” and the Commission that follows from it are highly regimented legal instruments that follow very specific rules and regulations. “Schedule ‘N’” was written in direct response to a class action law suit filed August 20, 2007 by the Honourable Frank Iacobucci, former National Chief Phil Fontaine and legal representatives of both former Indian residential school students and the Churches involved in running those schools. The Commission has seven Goals (a-g), which it has been mandated to complete “within five years.” Within that five-year mandate there are both two year and five year timelines to be followed, which cover everything from the “preparation of a budget” to the “completion of… statement taking / truth sharing.” The mandate itself is broken down into eleven sections, almost all of which have individual subsections and some of which have sub-subsections. The entirety of the document is twelve pages long and includes three footnotes, one of which I will be examining in detail in this blog post.

What has been a concern for some critics is what I call elsewhere an “ideology of economy,” or rather, the way in which “Schedule ‘N’” and the Commission work to contain the delicate process of reconciliation within a highly regimented and restrictive Western structure aimed at controlling expenses. As Jennifer Llewellyn rightly argues, “if reconciliation is about restoring relationships, it is more akin to a process than an end point to be achieved. Relationships are dynamic and ever changing” (190). Therefore, a Commission that wants to address reconciliation must be willing to accommodate an open-ended system, something which the current TRC (despite the recent extensions), with its focus on goals and timelines, fails to do.

Further, as Stan McKay (Fisher River Cree) points out, the implementation of closely controlled legislation stifles creativity and emulates colonial repression. McKay asks,

How can we operate creatively within existing structures? Restrictive rules and regulations hinder healing initiatives; the healing is often about liberation from historical captivity. Prescriptive impositions limit community response and may deny the vision for the future collaborative action that moves us toward reconciliation.

Following from the arguments made by Llewellyn and McKay, I argue that it is through an ideology of economy that the current TRC effectively represses alternative epistemologies in its adherence to legal formalities and its narrow-minded approach to timeframes. However, in its use of a goal driven narrative, which implies a “healed” Canada in some imaginary future, “Schedule ‘N’” also naturalizes its authoritarian discourse as necessary.

The limitations placed on Indigenous languages within “Schedule ‘N’” are most clearly indicated in one of the three footnotes included in the document. In line “c” of the TRC’s goals [1], it is stated that the Commission will “witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels” (2007). Next to the word “witness” in this line is a tiny number referring the reader to the bottom of the page (or back of the book, depending on which format you are consulting). It reads:

“This [witness] refers to the Aboriginal principal of ‘witnessing.’”

Following from McKay, I argue that by relegating this “Aboriginal principle” to a footnote, “Schedule ‘N’” economizes its narrative by “limit[ing] community response” (McKay) and thus maintaining and reproducing a singular colonial discourse. The form of the footnote itself already designates “Aboriginal principles” as an excess, an idea that cannot be accommodated within the body of the text itself.

Taking this footnote at its word, I investigated as “Aboriginal principle” of witnessing, the Cree term sehtoskakew: “a person who testifies to a certain situation” (Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary). Via a study of Cree principles of witnessing, including a close reading of Louise Halfe’s long poem Blue Marrow, which itself bears witness to the legacy of colonial violence.

Before beginning to consider an “Aboriginal principle” of witnessing, however, I needed to locate the borders that would  demarcate a “Western principle” and thus create an the inside/outside binary necessary to relegated “Aboriginal principles of witnessing” to the eyemargins of “Schedule ‘n.'” Following some rather dry research in the Canadian legal archives [2], I suggest that what is at stake in a Western definition of “witness” is the question of “line of sight,” which connects the subject to the event. In a Canadian court of Law, “[a]ny evidence that is offered by a witness of which they do not have direct knowledge” cannot testify to “the truth of what was contained therein” (The Law of Evidence in Canada; my emphasis). This definition offers a specific spatial and temporal relationship to an event in which the witness has an uninterrupted line or course to the event in question. It is not so much that “seeing is believing” here, as much as seeing sets up the terms for believing. Once sight has been established, then, and only then, can testimony be balanced inside the binary of true and false.

The logic would seem to follow that set up in elementary Physics: imagine experience as a rubber ball. The ball shoots out from the event and reflects off of an object, altering its trajectory. In this moment of contact, the ball must transfer some of its energy to that object and therefore move with slightly less force than before. It is this “transfer of energy,” then, if my metaphor holds, that the courts seem to be concerned with. In the Western system, a “witness” who is testifying to an event through a reflection, i.e. second-hand information, cannot carry the full force of that experience. Without this force, “the truth what was contained therein” cannot be adequately conveyed and is therefore inadmissible in a legal narrative.

In Cree, however, the same sense of time and space in relation to witnessing flows out of a different paradigm. Sight is, of course, still important, but how it is defined challenges the English language definition. This can be established by closely studying the  Cree word “wapatam,” which can be loosely translated to “S/he sees it” [3]. Etymologically, “wapatam” is closely related to the inanimate noun “wapamon” (mirror) and the transitive verb “wapamiw” (“S/h looks in the mirror and sees herself. ”). In making these connections between seeing and reflection the key difference between Western and Cree definitions of “witnessing” can be unpacked, inasmuch as a witness “sees” an event.

The etymological connection between “wapatam” and “wapamon” suggests that seeing is always already a matter of reflection; in the same manner, reflection is always intimately connected to sight, inasmuch as both words share an etymological root. Taking reflection as our starting point, then we are confronted not with the potential for a loss of meaning in witnessing, as in the Western understanding, but with a powerful augmentation of it–as when one mirror is held to another. It is here, in reflection, in stories, in sharing, in mekinawewin (the act of giving), and the transfer of energy, that sehtoskakew defines itself and an “Aboriginal principle” of witnessing can be explored as a decolonial act.

cree dicI have taken some brief lessons and engaged deeply with Cree texts and dictionaries, but I am not a fluid Cree speaker. In order to stabilize my reading (which I hope Cree speakers with a better knowledge than me will comment on) I am now going to apply it to a piece of poetry by the Cree poet Louise Bernice Halfe, one of the most important poets (Indigenous or otherwise) living in Canada today. In my reading of Blue Marrow, her magnum opus, Halfe locates the difference of Cree witnessing in the relationship between colonizer and colonized. Halfe asks her reader to consider what witnessing might entail when no one is left to testify to the crime or when, because of fear or anger or repression, the stories have been both suppressed (by the State) and repressed (by individuals and communities). In the below passage, acimowinis (the keeper of the stories), writing from the “present,” acts as a witness to a violent chase scene involving kimiwan-piysis and the “redcoats,” or British colonialists, which took place a decade earlier. What makes the passage so visceral is the lack of delineation between the subject, the storyteller and the reader. As Halfe suggests in this conflation, we all experience the event through the same eyes as it reflects through the text:


kimiwan-piysis, Raining Bird
ran with Spirits in his feet,
redcoats behind him.
He swam the sohkeciwani-sipiy,
the Fast Flowing River,
heart stronger than the cold
swell of water.

I hold his eyes in my fist,
and when yotin-napesis, Windy Boy,
sweeps the earth,
my fist uncurls. (46)

As the first line of the second stanza reveals, acimowinis’s re-telling of her ancestor’s history cannot be clearly delineated from kimiwan-piysis’s own experience. Halfe writes that “I hold his eyes in my fist,” suggesting that her own “reflection” on the events, captured in the leaves of her text, are one and the same as his. It is by taking this perspective, by literally gripping it in her hand, as one might a pen or pencil, that the keeper of the stories is able to give the kimiwan-piysis history to her reader, passing it from her hand to our own; and with these eyes in our hands at this powerful moment of reflection, we become sehtoskakew to colonial violence.

In this sense, what it means to be a (eye) witness of the horrors of colonization is always already displaced. The “eye” or “I” collapses into a multiplicity of perspectives that cannot, or indeed need not, be separated. As acimowinis tells us,

I bring to you
these Voices I will not name. Voices
filled with bird calls, snorting Buffalo,
kicking bears, mountain goats,
I do not recognize who speaks. (18)

Here the origin of the testimony is irrelevant. What matters is not who has witnessed the event, who has seen it, but simply that the story is told. We are asked to sit around the alter of the narrator’s large “eye/I,” swollen with ghosts of her past, and “see the blood.”

The ideological implications of bearing witness through another is not without debate. For instance, as a survivor of Auschwitz and author of the Holocaust narrative Night, Wiesel argues that

the truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so. (166)

Wiesel’s argument shouldn’t be taken lightly. There must be something inherently more powerful about testimony that comes from an (eye) witness.NightWiesel Someone who was in direct contact with that event. To claim there is not, is to take the power of testimony out of the victim’s hands and to place it in the authority of the academic or the hobbyist. However, to claim that testimony is the sole domain of the eye witness is also to risk the elision of that history, particularly when survivors have been muted.

In order to unpack this shibboleth we need to look more closely at how the eye/I functions in witnessing a traumatic event. Wiesel’s argument entails that the (eye) witness is more reliable than the witness who has only heard about an event. Its a powerful claim. What is needed, then, is a way to reasonably interrogate this argument. We need to undercut the authority of the (eye) witness–which also stands as authority  in Canadian courts of law. In order to do so, let us turn back to Halfe. A third of the way into Blue Marrow the reader is confronted with the following passage:

Father, these robes I wear confuse me. I have forgotten
who I am. A Jesuit. A monk. A brother. A priest. A
nun, perhaps. It matters not. I have sinned. My last
confession was in 1492. Yesterday. Ah yes, late today. (33)

As this portion of Blue Marrow illustrates, the violence of colonization effaces all difference: religion, sex and even time. If we chose to read “nun” as a homonym here, this figure has lost a sense of self, he/she is a “none,” a non-sign in the fabric of signification. We cannot avoid that the “I” that is speaking here is fundamentally confused. It has collapsed in on itself, creating a kind of vacuum. In this sense, the authority of the eye/I is suspended, taking with it the very validity of the (eye) witness.

For Halfe, an “Aboriginal Principle of witnessing” is never a simple matter. Many of the stories contained in Blue Marrow “stain the leaves” of this text. The book unrelentingly depicts the suffering and trauma Native people were made to endure during colonization. Perhaps the most gruesome account comes from kisetiniw-wapiskiwiyas (old white flesh) who retells the viscous slaughter of his Cree lover:

I loved her, this squaw, her brown body
warmed my bed for a thousand moons…
When the Jesuits came
and cursed her, I never looked at her again.
I drank spirits, Lifted my axe.
I’m bloodstained. (49)

Here, Halfe asks her reader to consider what witnessing might entail when no one is left to testify to the crime or when, because of fear or anger or repression, the stories have been psychically buried for so many years. Indeed, the eye/I of the above scene is always already displaced in Blue Marrow. Before the event above is depicted by acimowinis, the murdered woman, Wandering-Stone Grandmother, forecasts her own death: “I felt the axe. / I watched him / bury me” (48). The eye/I in this passage cannot be located in any stable position. Coming before her death in the plot, yet describing what occurs after the murder, we are unable to locate Wandering-Stone in a clear, undivided now. Is this a moment of prolepsis, looking forward to a future event, or of analepsis, reflecting back on that which has already occurred?

BlueMarrowStorelgMy argument here is that Blue Marrow is an act of witnessing for the other. In the passage above, the phrase “I watched him bury me” suggests a third person, someone “outside” of the events, who witnessed this woman’s death for her. The eye/I watches the death of “me” in a seemingly impossible circuit in which the ontological space of the witness is no longer determinable. Thus, in Blue Marrow what the individual has “seen done” is irrelevant, because the violence intimately affects the entire community. Indeed, for Halfe, “each face [sits] at the alter with one large eye” (2): what is seen by one is seen by the whole. As we approach the end of the book we learn that it is by witnessing through others, even those long buried by colonial history, that the narrator is compelled to speak. The large, communal eye represents a place to begin testimony for acimowinis: “your large eye / for my stepping stone” (97).

Witnessing and testimony stand at the centre of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but close reading exposes the ideological underpinnings of these terms. The witness in a Western legal system is always an eye witness–a framing which consigns storytelling and Indigenous knowledge systems to the margins.  “Schedule ‘N'” affirms this marginalization by relegating “Aboriginal principles of witnessing” to a footnote. In order for the TRC to be a decolonizing process–an thus a legitimate gesture towards reconciliation–these Indigenous “asides” must be incorporated into the body of the text. This blog post looks at one possible Cree principle of witnessing–sehtoskakew--and explores its relation to the individualistic gaze of the Western attestant. Future scholarship in Truth and Reconciliation studies must include further perspective and further interruption.


[1] TRC Goals:

a.) Acknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences;

b.) Provide a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward to the commission;

c.) Witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels;

d.) Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts;

e.) Identify sources and create as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy. The record shall be preserved and made accessible to the public for future study and use;

f.) Produce and submit to the Parties of the Agreement a report including recommendations to the Government of Canada concerning the IRS system and experience including: the history, purpose, operation and supervision of the IRS system, the effect and consequences of IRS (including systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential schools;

g.) Support commemoration of former Indian Residential School students and their families in accordance with the Commemoration Policy Directive.

[2] According to the Canadian Law Dictionary, witness is defined as “[o]ne who gives evidence in a case before a court and who attests or swears to facts or gives or bears testimony under oath. The phrase ‘witness in a judicial proceeding’ found in S.131 of the Criminal Code R.S.C 1985, c. C-46 includes a witness by affidavit if such affidavit when filed becomes part of a judicial proceeding according to the rules of the court.” While “line of sight,” as I am calling it here, is not at issue in this definition, the hearsay rule, cited above, illustrates the importance of sight, even if only as supplement, to a definition of “witness.” (qtd, In Sanagan’s Encyclopaedia of Words and Phrases Legal Maxims Canada).

[3] All Cree definitions are from The Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary/alperta ohci kehtehayak nehiyaw otwestamakewasinahikan (1998)

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