Sovereignty, Identity, and Labels

Suzanne  -  Mar 30, 2014  -  , ,  - 

Dragonfly’s work is really all about communication. When we work with educators, speak to conference attendees, facilitate student learning, or write curriculum, we aim for mutual understanding – and that starts with a critical investigation of the truth of opinions and the testing of truth by discussion. Sometimes the investigation is characterized by a logical argument that disputes accepted truth, but most of the time, the dialectic is achieved through conversation that mirrors the tension and flux of agreement and disagreement.

In other words: we love our Contact page. Recently, Dragonfly received a message referring to our August 2012 blog post “Toronto Is An Iroquois Word,” wherein the writer pointed out that she “couldn’t escape the irony in unmasking Toronto as a Haudenosaunee [and not an Anishinabe] word, then continuing on using colonial language to describe the language of which you are speaking.” Quite right, dear reader, quite right.

The issue of colonial labels is a bit of a minefield. Some Aboriginal peoples think it vitally important that we reclaim our pre-colonial labels as a way to re-establish (or re-assert) sovereignty, reclaim language and identity, and remind non-Aboriginal Canadians that there are other realities. Others say that although reclaiming pre-colonial labels is part of addressing the historical, systemic, and institutionalized oppression that has unmade our communities, it is the least important part of the day-to-day work that needs to be done to reorganize those systems and institutions and deal with the reality of intergenerational trauma at the community level. With few exceptions, most Aboriginal peoples use pre-colonial labels interchangeably with colonial labels, depending on the context or their mood.

The people who live in upstate New York, the north shore of Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River Valley, and once as far east as the Gaspé Peninsula call themselves the Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse.” The French colonists referred to the Haudenosaunee as Iroquois. There are two theories as to the origin of the term. Some scholars believe that it comes from the French transliteration of the Algonquian word irinakhoiw, a derogatory term used by Algonquian peoples to describe their Haudenosaunee enemies (the word means “black snakes” or “real adders”). Others believe that the term derives from the Basque fishermen who traded with Algonquian peoples along the Atlantic coast, originating from the Basque word hilokoa (“killer people”); because there is no L sound in the Algonquian languages in the St. Lawrence region, the Algonquian peoples pronounced it as “hirokoa,” with the French colonists later transliterating the word according to their own phonetic rules and arriving at “Iroquois.”

While facilitating a professional development session in September 2013, we used the term “Haudenosaunee” only to find that participants could not relate it to their current schema. Some people thought it was a group they had never heard of (even though they knew the Iroquois); others thought it was an historically extinct or dispersed group such as the Huron; others had heard us say “the Iroquois, otherwise known as the Haudenosaunee” but later forgot the colonial name and got confused as to who we were speaking about. Of course, effective facilitation means responding to participants’ needs, so we took a moment, reminded everyone who was who (and how the names originated), and carried on. Learning is about moving from one place to another, and sometimes the road can be bumpy.

However, it’s problematic to assume that we don’t need to (or should never) use colonial labels. Most people have no idea where Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining First Nation is – so even the official website of that community still uses “Dalles First Nation” in parentheses to avoid any confusion. And as the media coverage of last year’s fracking protests showed, no one knows how to pronounce Elsipogtog (it’s El-see-book-took) – but everyone can pronounce Big Cove.

An educator’s job is to give people the tools and information they need to learn and change. That means writing sentences such as “The people of Elsipogtog (formerly known as the Big Cove band)…” It means paving the way toward change by taking people on a journey; a journey that starts with the familiar – or at least relates to their schema – and provides opportunities for discussion that disrupt assumptions of truth.

The reader suggested that “Iroquois should be replaced by Haudenosaunee” in order for the blog post “to truly have any substantial meaning.” Dragonfly takes the point but respectfully disagrees: the post is about the true history of the city of Toronto, and it makes that point effectively by using both “Iroquois” and “Haudenosaunee.” We did change most of the “Iroquois” references to “Haudenosaunee,” but we couldn’t change them all, because we had to discuss ancient cultures and make a distinction between Iroquoian cultures – which included the Huron and other groups who were not Haudenosaunee – and the Iroquoian people who are known as the Haudenosaunee. And because the Toronto blog post is one of Dragonfly’s most popular and most commented upon posts, we also had to leave the title. The post has been widely cited, and the link has been passed along. Dragonfly can’t start people on their journey if they can’t find us.

For Dragonfly, that’s the heart of the matter: in order to communicate with others – in order to teach someone – we have to start where they are. So we’re starting where most people are: with Iroquois. Once we get past the title and the first few paragraphs, though, we start using the term “Haudenosaunee.” After that point, it’s up to the reader.

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