December 12, 2018

Symposium on Indigenous Communities Examines Discrimination, Climate Change

By Donald Gilpin

Tanya Talaga, journalist and author of the recent bestseller Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, told the stories of the seven fallen feathers and how she had come to write a book about the seven indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ontario between 2000 and 2011. 

Speaking to an audience of about 60 in the Princeton Public Library community room last Thursday
evening at the opening of the two-day International Symposium on Indigenous Communities and Climate Change, Talaga, a reporter for the Toronto Star and the only indigenous national print journalist in Canada, described how her proposed newspaper story on why indigenous people don’t vote turned into a project that lasted many years and led her into the lives of the seven students and their world.

“The kids died over a span of 11 years from 2000 to 2011, and there had been no news stories,” she said. “I couldn’t capture the story about what was happening in Thunder Bay.”

By the spring of 2015, Talaga was finally ready to write her book, and she received advice from a tribal grand chief, who told her to “start your story with Chanie Wenjack,” a 12-year-old who froze to death on the railway tracks in 1966 after running away from a residential school. An inquest was held with no participation from his family and little follow up from the authorities. 

The Indian Residential Schools, designed for the purpose of assimilation, were closed in 1996, but Talaga sees their legacy of human rights violations in the more recent history of Thunder Bay, where the seven students who died were hundreds of miles from their families, forced to leave home because there was no high school on their reserves. The students, frequently subjected to racist treatment, died from various causes, five of them found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior. Police investigations provided few satisfactory explanations.

Talaga reported briefly on the story of each of their lives and their deaths. She went on to report on the response from the local authorities, with some new policies passed, a new mayor and new council in Thunder Bay, and the hope of a new vision. She described greater awareness and some productive discussion in the community, but ongoing frustration and sadness over the losses, “two steps forward and two steps back.” 

“Why is it like this?” a mother of one of the deceased students asked. “Why are we not treated like human beings?” Talaga noted that the indigenous population of Thunder Bay has grown to about 15 percent of the 110,000 total, but the population of the Thunder Bay jail is about 100 percent indigenous.

Focusing on her story of Thunder Bay and the seven high school students, Talaga left others, indigenous scholars and journalists, on Thursday and in a full day of speeches and discussion at Princeton University’s Betts Auditorium on Friday, to point out the destructive effects of climate change on indigenous communities.

Seniors from Stuart Country Day of the Sacred Heart, who have been studying indigenous peoples in North America, opened Thursday night’s meeting with the reading of a “land acknowledgement” they have drafted to honor the Lenni Lenape and to acknowledge that all of Princeton rests on Lenni Lenape land. 

“We honor the Lenape and other Indigenous caretakers of these lands and waters, the elders who lived here before, the Indigenous today, and the generations to come,” the acknowledgement states.

Following the two-day event, Candis Callison, journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, a visiting professor at Princeton University this year as the Pathy Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies, and author of a recent book on How Climate Change Comes to Matter, expressed optimism. “We all feel like we started something important here,” she said. “A lot of momentum has been created, and I’m grateful for all the support.” She noted in particular Princeton’s Humanities Council Fund for Canadian Studies, the Program in Journalism, and the Princeton Environmental Institute, as sponsors of the event.

Simon Morrison, Princeton University music professor, director of Canadian Studies, and organizer of the symposium, stated his hope that the event would help motivate the creation of an Indigenous Studies program at Princeton. “The larger, greater issue, framing and undergirding the symposium, is the increasing focus on, and advocacy for, environmental justice, what’s being called a ‘New Green Deal,’ among the high school, undergraduate, and graduate student populations of our community. I agree that it should be indigenous-led.”

Topics highlighted in speeches and discussion at the symposium included indigenous knowledge systems and frameworks for justice and sustainable development; indigenous reporting on climate change and environment-related conflicts; indigenous media and social movements; forced removal from land, intergenerational trauma, and legacies of the residential school systems; territorial disputes, community well being and food sovereignty; and impacts of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Native people know so much about climate change because we are people who move according to the seasons and we need to do so safely,” stated Michigan State University Philosophy and Community Sustainability Professor Kyle Powys Whyte, a featured speaker on both Thursday and Friday.

Pointing out a stark contrast between what indigenous communities used to be, based on movement and migration, and what they are today, he described the destructive effects of colonialism, industry, and climate change.