Canada’s native Tlingit: ‘North-America had its own concentration camps’ (4 June 2019)

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Journalist Nienke Beintema and her family are spending a year in the Canadian village of Atlin, close to Alaska. Atlin is located on traditional territory of the indigenous Tlingit people. Atlin has 300 inhabitants, about one third of whom are Tlingit. Most Tlingit live in a separate neighbourhood, called Five Mile – five miles (eight kilometres) outside the village. In Five Mile there are no fluent Tlingit speakers anymore, although some people are learning the language and it is taught at the local school.




Canada’s native Tlingit: ‘North-America had its own concentration camps’


Canadian native children were taken away from their homes until late into the last century, to ‘assimilate’. Many are still traumatized.



“One day a government bus pulled up in front of our house. We had to get in, my brother and I. I was five years old. I did not want to go, but we were told that my parents would go to jail if we refused.” These are the words of Kaushee O’Shea, an elder of the Tlingit community of Atlin, Northwest Canada (see text box). She is talking about her childhood at a Catholic residential school in Lower Post, almost 500 kilometers away.

O’Shea has been invited to the local primary school to tell her story to the lower grades: ten children from five to ten years old. The children are sitting on a rug on the floor in front of her and are a captivated audience. O’Shea’s visit coincides with a “Homecoming Celebration”: Atlin welcomes back its Tlingit fellow villagers who were taken away as children, and many of whom are now living across Canada. Through music and dance, meals and spiritual ceremonies, they are aiming to advance their healing process together.

“I hardly saw my brother at that school, because boys and girls lived in different parts of the building,” O’Shea continues. “There were hundreds of children from all over the north. We were not allowed to speak our own language, wear our own clothes, or talk about home. Otherwise we’d be punished.”

“Did you go home on the weekends?”, asks an eight-year-old girl.

“No, it was too far away,” replies O’Shea. “We were allowed to go home once a year in the summer. There would always be a new baby. But I never got to know them, all those new brothers and sisters. I still don’t know them well.”

“Did you ever do fun things at school?”, another girl asks. O’Shea ponders her answer, looking at her hands.

“No, we didn’t do any fun things there,” she finally replies. “The nuns were very strict. There was no love. We weren’t allowed to write letters home either. Once a year we received a card from our parents. The envelope would include five dollars. But the nuns would put that money in their own pockets.” She pauses again. “It was a sad time.”



Starting in 1874, the Canadian government ran a network of residential schools throughout the country. Its purpose was assimilation: the indigenous population had to be dissolved into white society. In many schools, children were not allowed to go home at all during the first five years. Only in 1996 did the last school close its doors. The time of the residential schools is now seen as a black page in Canadian history. The schools symbolize the oppression of the indigenous peoples, or First Nations, as they are called here. For generations, children grew up without any knowledge of their traditional way of life, language or culture.

Today’s 1.6 million native Canadians therefore have the same dark history as, for example, the Aboriginals of Australia and the Inuit of Greenland. Much was lost with the arrival of Western culture. Their rich language and traditions, stories, in-depth knowledge of nature and identity gave way to depression and alcohol and drug abuse. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Canadian First Nations under the age of 45. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher than among other Canadians.

The story of O’Shea, tailored to an audience of young children, only scatches the surface of the tragedy. In the past twenty years, details have gradually emerged about the physical, mental and sexual abuse at the – mostly Catholic – residential schools. An estimated four to six thousand children died there. The numbers were published in a 2015 report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. O’Shea’s school in Lower Post turned out to be one of the worst in all of Canada. In the 1990s, one of the supervisors who worked there in her time was convicted of 28 cases of sexual abuse.



That evening my family and I attend the Homecoming dinner in the social centre of Atlin. The non-Tlingit villagers are expressly invited. At first we hesitated whether it would be appropriate for us to go: as outsiders we don’t want to intrude. But the school teacher has convinced us how important it is for non-indigenous people to come, “to show our respect and support.” The spiritual ceremony earlier today, in which many homecomers were given a Tlingit name for the first time, we have let pass. But attending the dinner does seem appropriate. Everyone brings something to eat, according to local tradition. We have baked a large spice cake.

There are around one hundred Tlingit and about twenty non-indigenous people. We do feel a bit out of place. But that feeling soon disappears as we are warmly welcomed by at least a dozen people: “How great that you’re here!” With a plate full of sweet potato and moose stew we sit down at a table with an older man. He introduces himself, but prefers to remain anomymous.

“Have you ever heard of PTSD?”, he asks, out of the blue. “Post-traumatic stress disorder. The same thing soldiers have when they come back from a war. That’s what we have too, the survivors of the residential schools. PTSD.” He eats thoughtfully, with an expressionless face. “In Europe you had the Nazis with their concentration camps,” he says, when he hears where we’re from. “North America also had concentration camps, right up to the 1990s. We are the survivors.”

His story sends shivers down our spines. In his family he is the third – and last – generation to go to Lower Post. “But my children also suffer the consequences,” he notes. “And their children.” Two of his children have committed suicide. He says that the detailed testimonies he has given about the abuse at Lower Post have thrown him back ten years in his healing process.

He thinks the Homecoming in Atlin is a good initiative. “It’s the first one,” he notes. “After all those years. Only now are we ready. ”

The dining tables are pushed aside. A band of older Tlingit men starts playing country music. “Oh Lord, now we need you more than we ever did before,” the band leader sings. An older couple dances intimately. Small children swing each other around. A woman in her forties dances on her own, her arms in the air. The others observe from the side. The elderly chat with each other. People in their thirties clean up the plates. Teenagers look at their phones.



Canada’s formal process of Reconciliation started in 2008 with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciation Commission. In that same year, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologised to the victims of residential schools, on behalf of the Canadian government. But Reconciliation is not just about residential schools, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission emphasizes. According to this committee, Reconciliation is about “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”

In the context of Reconciliation, research has since been carried out into the abuse, as well as public discussions, information and education. There are subsidies and tax breaks for indigenous groups. Incidentally, Reconciliation is seen as separate from the legal process concerning indigenous land ownership. That process is very controversial and still not completed.

Reconciliation itself is also controversial – and the subsidies in particular. I notice this during an evening with ‘white’ friends by a woodstove in a log cabin, a week before the Homecoming. We are talking about a nearby community, Ross River, which is struggling with a vicious circle of unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and overall hopelessness. “But those subsidies don’t solve anything,” someone says. “They only create dependence. It is precisely these subsidies that enable people to stay in their beds all day.”


Strong leaders

Another friend has a more nuanced view: “If you have never learned to get up on time in the morning, or to do your schoolwork,” he says, “because your parents, and your grandparents, are too broken to provide structure and set an example… And if your whole village has a drinking problem… Then as a young person you have to be extremely strong to be able to break that circle on your own.”

And if someone does manage to escape from this misery, I wonder, do they have equal opportunities? I mention recent Dutch research into the chances of job applicants with a Dutch-, versus Arabic-sounding name. A resumé with a Dutch name on it, and a violent crime, has three times more chance of a positive response compared to the exact same resumé with an Arabic-sounding name, but no violent crime. “That undoubtedly plays a role here too,” someone responds.

One of these friends runs her own company. She talks about new tender rules that give priority to indigenous people. “I have thirty years of experience,” she says. “And now I lose jobs to people who just started. Quality no longer plays a role. That’s not right either.” As a compromise, she says, companies can seek cooperation with indigenous colleagues and prepare a tender together. Cooperation can benefit both parties – and is also an objective of the new rules. “I tried that once,” she says, “for a week-long project. But then that person didn’t show up all week.”

But can we really blame that person? And, more importantly, then what is the solution? Nobody has a concrete answer. The term “strong leader from their own community” is often mentioned. But brain drain is a big problem: many talented young people don’t return to their villages after their education.


Never finished

Joan Jack, a lawyer and prominent member of the Tlingit community in Atlin, also mentions brain drain. I visit Jack a few weeks before the Homecoming in her self-built wooden house in the Tlingit neighbourhood outside Atlin. On her walls I notice several frames with uplifting statements about courage, perseverance and self-esteem.

“Very few indigenous people in this town have a higher education,” says Jack. “That’s why white people run the village. And the school. Yes, there is the occasional Tlingit lesson. But education overall is white. That really has to change.”

Will Reconciliation ever be finished? “No, it’s never finished,” Jack replies. “White people often complain: ‘Doesn’t it ever stop? Get over it.’ But we can’t just get over it. The trauma continues. And it will continue, as long as the discrimination continues, and the unequal opportunities. And as long as the government refuses to say: we really commit to change, and we will ensure that you will have actual sovereignty over your lands again.”

Yet Jack sees herself as an optimist. “I have to be,” she says. “Otherwise I might as well kill myself.” She becomes emotional. “People call me a racist. But I tell things the way they are. White people are afraid to hear that, because they have no idea.”

These are also the words of our table companion during the Homecoming dinner, when he talks about residential schools. “You simply have no idea. You wouldn’t believe what happened there.” He dips his last piece of bread into his moose gravy. “But we’re still here. They tried to get rid of us, but we’re still here.”

The eyeballs are amazing (13 July 2019)

This is a translation from the original Dutch article that can be found here.


How do animals think? People who work with animals on a daily basis really get to know them. This week: the hunter and the moose.


“I have heard rich trophy hunters say: the moose is the ugliest animal in the world. I totally disagree. Bullshit. The moose is one of the most beautiful animals. So confident. So majestic. “
Bryan Jack is standing in the kitchen of his log house in Atlin, a remote village in northwestern Canada. The sinewy man is working at the counter, his sleeves rolled up. In front of him lies a hairy piece of meat the size of a small football. Using his fingernails, Jack is meticulously removing the thin skin and hairs. I take a good look again. I see two huge nostrils, slightly bent downwards. A velvety soft skin in between. A wrinkled upper lip. This thing Jack is working on is a steamed moose nose. A traditional delicacy from the Tlingit, the indigenous group – whom people here no longer call Indians – to which Jack belongs.
“My father and my brothers taught me how to hunt,” he says. “I shot my first moose when I was eighteen years old. But in the years before, I often came along when they were hunting, to learn the tricks.” You have to get to know the land, Jack emphasizes. He who knows the land knows the animals. And he who knows the animals can survive. “It’s an art,” says Jack, who grew up in what he calls a bush camp.
As you spend more time outside, you will start to recognize patterns. You will know the migration paths. You’ll know where to find the mineral rocks that ungulates like to lick. When to expect certain animals in certain places. How you can best approach them. “But I’m still learning,” says Jack. “Hunting is still what I live from. But sometimes I just go outside to be outside. To see the lay of the land.”
In all these years, he grew more and more familiar with how the animals think. “If I follow a moose, I think: where will it go next? I am not blindly following its tracks. No, I’m trying to outsmart it.” Experts, he says, know how to cut corners, so that they can wait for a moose in the next valley. Having walked thousands of miles through the wilderness himself, he can tell from the tracks whether an animal is limping. He knows which sounds to make to lure a bull. How he can judge, by the position of its ears, whether an animal is nervous or relaxed. He knows how to call back a moose that is just about to flee. “You must be in constant contact with the animal,” Jack emphasizes. “You have to talk to it, asking it to be kind to you. Not to attack you. To give itself to you.”

Enthused he talks about the majestic antlers, the big black eyes, the elegant long legs. About the powerful emotion you experience when you manage to approach a moose and look it in the eye. Does he not find it difficult to pull the trigger? “No. This is what I learned in my indigenous upbringing: the country is the spirit. If the spirit gives you a moose, you take it. You can compare it to a blessing from God. Then I thank the animal. Gunalchéesh that you gave your life to me.”

Meanwhile, Jack is still working very patiently on skinning the moose nose, using his bony thumb and index finger like a pair of pincers. “It’s a tricky job,” he notes. “Especially here at the front, around this black
triangle just above the lip. That’s where the skin is really hard to remove.” The rest of the nose is now skinless. A pale-glassy mass, greasy and steaming. With a large knife, Jack cuts the huge thing into cubes: an entire bowl full. Enough for the two dozen guests who will arrive tonight for a traditional feast.

Jack sprinkles salt and pepper on the cubes. “Try one,” he says, presenting the bowl to me. A real honor, I realize. I pick a piece that is not too small, but definitely not too big either, and put it in my mouth. It tastes exactly as it looks. I can’t chew through the cartilage, but try to keep a straight face. Eventually I swallow the cube whole.
“You don’t have to say you like it,” Jack laughs. He wipes his hands and sits down at the table. “We eat every part of the moose.” Grinning, he nuances: “Except for the dung and the bones. We eat the
brain, the organs, the eyeballs. The eyeballs are amazing. We eat the marrow from the toe digits. And we eat the tops of the young antlers. They are still cartilage-like. Very tasty if you roast them over a fire.” Just as tasty as moose nose? “Tastier.”

Jack pauses, stares out the window. “I love the land,” he says emphatically, “with everything that lives in it. It is the core of our existence. That’s why I take it as an insult when someone says moose are ugly. ”