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“A soul-deep desolation:” Reconciliation and the Vacuum of Unstoried Existence

Excerpted from The Theatre of Regret: Art, Literature, and the Politics of Reconciliation

While it is intimately, and, perhaps, impossibly, entwined with Christian ideology and Western politics, the idea of reconciliation does not belong to the Western theory alone. Indigenous scholars such as Billy-Ray Belcourt, Daniel Heath Justice, Hadley Friedland, Val Napoleon, Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, among others, have all produced rigorous and critical Indigenous frameworks through which to consider the possibility of reconciliation in Canada: frameworks that are built in relation to the lands, stories, and peoples of the territories on which the concept is unfolding. Understanding reconciliation means listening to the peoples on whose lands that concept is being enacted and whose histories it claims to redress. 

Napoleon and Friedland, for instance, investigate the power of story as a means to reconsider reconciliation as a resurgent iteration of Indigenous law. Napoleon and Friedland use the TRC of Canada and its final report as leverage for an argument for Indigenous legal traditions. According to the TRC final report, “Aboriginal peoples must be recognized as possessing the responsibility, authority, and capability to address their disagreements by making laws within their communities. This is necessary to facilitating truth and reconciliation with Aboriginal societies.”[i] Recognizing, facilitating, and building Indigenous law explicitly and materially positions reconciliation in relation to decolonization — in Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s sense of the word — in that it interrupts the false logic of terra nullius and re-establishes Indigenous connection to land via legal traditions that span back thousands of years.[ii] Establishing Indigenous law as a principle of reconciliation unsettles the founding legal principles on which the settler state is constructed and reconstructs Indigenous peoples as legitimate stewards of land. Napoleon and Friedland argue that, “Indigenous legal traditions are fundamentally about Indigenous citizenry, self-determination, and governance.”[iii] Stark illustrates that Indigenous diplomatic negotiation existed without settler interference and can be traced far before contact.[iv]

Napoleon and Friedland’s intervention into reconciliation in Canada is not a romanization of pre-contact legal traditions but a direct and practical contention with the legal issues that Indigenous peoples are facing today and will continue to face in the future: “It is our belief that Indigenous stories should live out in the world with us today,” they state in the final sentence of the essay, “fully and all the time.”[v] Napoleon and Friedland bring stories into the present and future by engaging storytelling as a dynamic iteration of Indigenous law, which can both transmit historical knowledge while simultaneously responding to contemporary contexts.[vi]

At the core of their argument is that Indigenous stories themselves were never meant to be static, lifeless objects. Rather, they are given meaning and life in their (re)telling — in the response and responsibility that opens in the space between storyteller and audience: “Stories are not preserved by being passively passed on by infallible elders in some immaculate, if increasingly mysterious or obscure, form. Rather stories are part of a serious public intellectual and interactive dialogue involving listeners and learners, and elders and other storytellers — as they have been for generations.”[vii] These authors argue that Indigenous law is implicit to stories and can be drawn out not only by close, careful reading, but can be applied in ways that directly respond to contemporary issues while establishing Indigenous contexts for contending with those issues. Stories, they argue, provide the legal infrastructure to build citizenry, self-determination, sovereignty, and relationality, and with these, perhaps also reconciliation.

In this sense, the work that Napoleon and Friedland are doing from their perspective as legal scholars touches very close to what Indigenous literary scholars, such as Daniel Heath Justice, are thinking about when they situate story as a means to grapple with identity and our relationships to others. In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Justice suggests that,

Our lives are incarnations of the stories we tell, the stories told about us, and the stories we inherit. They are both the process and the consequence of the transformations into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, without those stories, without the teachings about the who, how, and why of us, something is profoundly, almost existentially amiss. We don’t need to speak them to live them; even those not given voice are inextricably embraided in our sense of self. We know ourselves only through stories. The unstoried life is a terrible thing to comprehend, a soul-deep desolation.[viii]

Justice, Napoleon, and Friedland argue that Indigenous stories extend well beyond entertainment and documentation. At the core of both of their arguments is that stories hold fundamental and necessary roadmaps for locating ourselves in relationship to the land, in relationship to more-than-human kin, and in relationship to the other. Indeed, one of the primary questions Justice thinks we should ask of Indigenous stories is “what is it to become and live as a good relative?”[ix] In this sense, Indigenous stories can do much more than narrate reconciliation or provide models of critique, they are maps for formally realigning our relationships to ourselves and those around us. They are models of praxis that centre Indigenous knowledges, traditions, and futures.

Story as relationship is a very big part of Napoleon and Friedland’s methodology. Below is a brief description of a law and story workshop that Napoleon and Friedland organized, which illustrates a praxis of reconciliation as it develops out of legal engagement with Indigenous stories:

Unlike a typical conference in which academics deliver papers while the audience sits and listens, in this workshop, academics, professionals, and Indigenous community members worked together in small groups to analyze ten Cree and ten Dene stories using the adapted legal analysis method with the help of a trained facilitator. These small groups then came together in two larger groups to collectively synthesize the principles identified through the legal analysis of the stories. Following the collective synthesis, the participants again dived into small groups and looked at the principles from the perspective of the women in the stories to promote consciousness of gender issues. Finally, using the synthesized legal principles and attending to gender and power dynamics, each group told the new story to the larger group.[x]

The workshop described above begins with a bannock making competition, in which academics, professionals, and Indigenous community members were grouped together and tasked with making bannock using some unusual ingredients, such as almond milk and brown rice flour. The exercise was aimed at creating community and relationships between Indigenous and settler participants, while unsettling the expectations of “expertise” that pervade academic conferences.

With this community foundation in place, the groups worked together to analyze the content and form of the stories using an “internal viewpoint” as an interpretive methodology. An internal viewpoint interpretation means reading the stories from the contexts, epistemologies, and territories of their inception: resisting non-Indigenous literary interpretation and Western models of analysis.[xi] The goal of the workshop was to provide “an alternative access to Indigenous law that community members and members of the broader legal community can consciously apply in order to draw on intellectual resources for framing and resolving contemporary issues.”[xii] This is to say, out of collective readings of the stories arise Indigenous legal frameworks that are constructed — not as the application of historical principles to contemporary contexts — but as grounded, living Indigenous legal engagement formulated out of active listening and community development. In this sense, Napoleon and Friedland not only offer an essential model for thinking about Indigenous legal traditions in the context of the TRC, they also model an act of reconciliation: centred around Indigenous contexts, built out active listening and deconstructed power dynamics, and formulated in direct response to the fallacious legal structures of settler colonialism, namely terra nullius.

Aside from story, treaty processes and relationships also bear fertile space for thinking reconciliation from within Indigenous contexts. Treaty and reconciliation come from very different political contexts, but they are both grounded in relationality. Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark argues that, at their cores, “treaties are about making relationships.”[xiii] Indeed, Stark’s work illustrates that, if rigorously addressed from Indigenous perspectives, treaties, like stories, can serve as activation points through which to conceive our relationships to the other. “[Treaties] were not mere agreements that ceded one thing in exchange for another,” Stark continues. “They carried commitments that did not end with the exchange of land for annuities. These agreements connected people. Treaties were a vision for what a multinational society could entail.”[xiv] Inasmuch as treaties are about making respectful relationships, they are also about engaging with centuries-long practices of diplomatic negotiations that have been built out of the territories on which the TRC of Canada, and reconciliation itself, are now unfolding. Stark’s work, for instance, illustrates the long-standing practices of Anishinaabe diplomacy and the formal practices through which those communities oriented themselves in relation to other peoples and nations.

This is only a piece of the large body of work that Indigenous peoples have put in to diplomatic processes. In his historical work on the Plains Cree, John Milloy writes that, “Far from being the romantic wild riders of the plain, the Cree … were engaged in a set of well-structured, inter-tribal relationships which were designed to ensure their security, to assist them in meeting the challenges of plains existence and to facilitate the acquisition of the good things in their world.”[xv] While settler colonialism and the myths of terra nullius work to delegitimize Indigenous law and diplomacy, there are detailed and sophisticated structures to draw from as a framework for reconciliation: “Indigenous peoples have always had governance,” Kiera Ladner writes.[xvi] The question now is if that governance can be read into contemporary reconciliation politics, and if doing so is even desirable. Stark helps to address this question, building out of the notion of treaty as relationship, by looking into what she identifies as the three core principles of Anishinaabe treaty making: mutual respect, responsibility, and renewal: 1) Respect, refers to holding the other in high esteem, speaking well of them, and treating them fairly; 2) responsibility refers to acting out of reciprocal obligation to the other and being accountable to previous agreements; and 3) renewal, which means the ongoing respect and responsibility that provides for the continuation of treaty and relationship. Importantly, these principles are not human-centric. They are framed within a larger understanding of accountability to the renewal of the land and relationships with more-than-human kin.[xvii]

According to Stark, Indigenous treaty was built “as a living relationship,”[xviii] which operated far beyond the narrow confines of the treaty document itself into the relationships that developed before, after, around, and during the arrangement of the document:

Treaties created relationships among nations. They established relationships of trust. That trust did not end with the completion of a written document; it merely began with it. However, it was the responsibility of all parties involved to maintain the relationships established through treaty making. The sustainability of these agreements was dependent upon each nation adhering to the principles of respect, responsibility, and renewal.[xix]

Treaty, in the way that Stark conceives of it out of Anishinaabe tradition, is relational in the fact that it is about the actions, conversations, exchanges, supports, and hospitalities that occurred in, around, and through the written documentation named “treaty.” Like the engagement with story that Napoleon and Friedland describe, “reconciliation,” in this conception, would be derived in the ongoing processes of engagement with the object (i.e. the Final Report or the 94 Calls to Action), as opposed to the document itself.

Treaty is thus, for Stark, a verb rather than a noun. In this sense of verb, of treaty as action and engagement, I am again drawing from Justice, who also presses his readers to imagine relationality as an active, reciprocal process born out of responsibility and compassion. Justice formulates his conception of relationality in terms of kinship, but the resonances with Stark’s work are illuminating: as with Stark’s conception of treaty, “kinship isn’t a static thing; it’s dynamic, ever in motion. It requires attentiveness; kinship is best thought of as a verb rather than a noun, because kinship, in most Indigenous contexts, is something that’s done more than something that simply is.”[xx] Like Stark, Justice asks us to consider the deep and ongoing modalities of care and attentiveness that are required in building and maintaining relationships, outside of stagnant interpretations of treaty rights, which he addresses directly:

While the language of treaties all too often erases relational understandings and replaces them with the Eurowestern language of land-as-object, the guiding purpose behind the defense of treaty rights is as much (or more) about ensuring the ongoing maintenance of the ceremonies and rituals that ensure good relationships with the rest of creation as it is the defense of limited natural resources.[xxi]

The kinship model Justice unpacks acknowledges that relationships are not documents; they are acts of care and compassion that open space for sovereignty in ways that embrace the volatility of being in relation to the other, “opening room for the return of those models of self-determination that speak to the survival and presence of indigenous peoples, not simply the durability of individuals of Indigenous ancestry.”[xxii] As Justice makes plain here, sustainable relationality is future-oriented, looking not only towards the protection of land and resources, but also towards care and cultivation, or, to use Stark’s vernacular, renewal. The models of relationality that Justice and Stark offer here unsettle reconciliation in productive ways: they centre land and Indigenous epistemologies as means to evoke and engage relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada; they place land and sustainability at the forefront of the conversations; and, building out towards one of the theses in this book, they lend support to the notion that reconciliation is a structure, not an event, which is to say that relationship cannot be confined to a final document, handshake, signature, or celebration. What Stark and Justice both offer is a model to conceive reconciliation as relationships of trust and sustainability, oriented in relation to attentiveness and renewal.

That being said, in its unsettling, the emphasis on relationship and care offered in these critiques also refocuses reconciliation on some familiar TRC principles, for instance, the “love thy neighbour” tenants that Desmond Tutu built the South African commission out of.[xxiii] Legal scholar Robert A. Williams Jr., writes that treaty provides “a way of imagining a world of human solidarity where we regard others as our relatives.”[xxiv] The principles of respect, responsibility, and renewal that Stark lays out in her work provide the means to conceptualize love, care, and human solidarity outside of the Judeo-Christian framework that Tutu injects into the TRC model, but both Stark and Justice frame “neighbor love” as radical acts of care and relationality that hold up Indigenous diplomacy and therefore Indigenous ways of defining the neighbor as such. In appealing to the maintenance and respect of the borders defined in treaty, much like Napoleon and Friedland, Stark and Justice provide decolonial relational frameworks, insofar as they reorient the maintenance of neighbor relationships in correlation with the land and privilege the knowledges and traditions that continue to spring from it through and with Indigenous peoples.

If Stark and Justice provide the means to loop back into the larger, international, reconciliation discourse, they do so in a way that necessitates place-based analysis, not the overarching, universalist conceptions that are attached to Tutu’s Christian superstructure. “Love thy neighbor,” if it can, in fact, be translated into Anishinaabe contexts, for instance, must be rigorously read through protocols of respect, responsibility, and renewal for that concept to be legible in this place and in relation to the peoples for which “reconciliation” is being named. Treaty provides a means to think reconciliation insofar as it frames relationality in terms of established, Indigenous diplomacy, and protocol. As such, it provides tangible, respectful borders from which to conceive the universalist tenets of love and forgiveness that make up the larger discourse of the TRC as it arises out of the international context.

Finally, I put “reconciliation” in scare quotes in the header for this section because it is important to note that, because of the way the term has been co-opted by white settler Canadians, the term is replete with undertones of colonization and assimilation and is therefore of limited or of no use to many Indigenous authors. I am thinking specifically of writers such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who, in This Accident of Being Lost, identifies reconciliation as a tool to be deployed strategically by Indigenous peoples, not as a gesture towards “harmony” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, but as a means to placate a settler class that would otherwise works against Indigenous peoples and their ways of life. For instance, in the short story “Plight,” a group of Nishnaabekwewag called the Fourth World Problems Collective (FWPC) construct a detailed plan to collect maple syrup from their territory, despite settler interference. The plan arises not as a means towards collecting the syrup, although this is something they are learning as well given that settler colonialism works to divorce them from the practice. The FWPC needs an elaborate plan to placate the settlers who otherwise might take offense to Indigenous peoples in “their” neighbourhoods. In order to facilitate syrup gathering, the FWPC must, “hand out … flyers first. Have a community meeting. Ask permission. Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.”[xxv] Reconciliation, when it comes up for the FWPC, is an extension of this list. It is yet another means to appeal to settler benevolence, so that the FWPC might continue doing what their ancestors have always done on that land, that is, “make them [settlers] feel better, and when reconciliation comes up at the next dinner party, they can hold us up as the solution and brag to their friends about our plight.”[xxvi] Reconciliation is, for the FWPC, useful only insofar as it can be mobilized strategically to advance resurgence and protect tradition. It works because reconciliation carries cultural capital for liberal white settlers, and evoking it provides for a performance in which “they can be part of the solution without doing anything.”[xxvii] This deployment of reconciliation is strikingly different to its uses in Chile or South Africa, but it gestures towards a means through which it can strategically be recast and reclaimed by Indigenous peoples in Canada, despite the its recuperation into settler colonial ideology.

For more reading on reconciliation and residential schools see 20 Books that Will Change How You Think About Canada.


[i] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Winnipeg, MB: TRC, 2015), 206, http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Final%20Reports/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf, quoted in Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland, “An Inside Job: Engaging with Indigenous Legal Traditions through Stories,” McGill Law Journal 61, 4 (2016): 729.

[ii] Sarah Hunt points out that terra nullius is founded in the disavowal and erasure of Indigenous legal traditions within the system of settler colonialism: “For Indigenous peoples, the myth of the ‘discovery’ of Canada upon which the legitimacy of the nation itself depends, serves to continually our self-determination and legitimacy as peoples capable of formulating law. Our dehumanization is inherent in how the nation itself comes into being.” Cindy Holmes, Sarah Hunt, and Amy Piedalue, “Violence, Colonialism, and Space: Towards a Decolonizing Dialogue,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14, 2 (2015): 554.

[iii] Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland, “An Inside Job: Engaging with Indigenous Legal Traditions through Stories,” McGill Law Journal 61, 4 (2016): 727.

[iv] Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, “Respect, Responsibility and, Renewal: The Foundations of Anishinaabe Treaty Making with the United States and Canada,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 34, 2 (2010): 148.

[v] Napoleon and Friedland, “An Inside Job,” 754.

[vi] Katie Glaskin, “Innovation and Ancestral Revelation: The Case of Dreams,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11, 2 (2009): 297-314.

[vii] Napoleon and Friedland, “An Inside Job,” 738.

[viii] Daniel Heath Justice, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017) 32.

[ix] Ibid., 67.

[x] Napoleon and Friedland, “An Inside Job,” 750.

[xi] The “internal viewpoint” approach is similar to what Janice Acoose and others call literary sovereignty: “Exercising sovereignty, we must name/define our own literatures and take control of the Indigenous-literary territory.” “Deconstructing Five Generations of White Christian Colonial Rule,” in Residential Schools: The Stolen Years, ed. Linda Jaine, 2nd ed. (Saskatoon, SK: University Extension Press, 1995), 46-47.

[xii] Napoleon and Friedland, “An Inside Job,” 744.

[xiii] Stark, “Respect, Responsibility, and Renewal,” 157.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] John Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988), xiv.

[xvi] Kiera Ladner, Indigenous Governance: Questioning the Status and the Possibilities for Reconciliation with Canada’s Commitment to Aboriginal and Treaty Rights (West Vancouver, BC: National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2006), 2, http://fngovernance.org/ncfng_research/kiera_ladner.pdf.

[xvii] Stark, “Respect, Responsibility, and Renewal,” 152.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid., 156.

[xx] Daniel Heath Justice, “‘Go Away, Water!’: Kinship Criticism and the Decolonization Imperative,” in Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collection, ed. Craig Womack (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 150.

[xxi] Ibid., 163.

[xxii] Ibid., 150.

[xxiii] Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 113.

[xxiv] Robert A. Williams Jr., Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of

Law and Peace, 1600–1800 (New York: Routledge, 1999), 83–84; quoted in Stark, “Respect, Responsibility, and Renewal,” 147.

[xxv] Simpson, “Plight,” 5.

[xxvi] Ibid., 5.

[xxvii] Ibid., 6.

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