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How spring break could promote indigenous reconciliation

Ottawa Citizen by Jodi Bruhn 09 March 2017

This coming week, many winter-weary Ottawa families will head south for spring break. If you’re lucky enough to travel, Henry Miller has some advice. The American author described one’s destination as “never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

So how about it?  Wherever you go, how about seeking that fresh perspective?

Maybe it’ll be Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic. Or Hawaii: the Big Island, for example, where this traveller went last year. In the course of relaxing, the place might also help you see things – indigenous/settler things – with fresh eyes.

Take surfing, for example. The Kona Coast surfers look like seals at first, bobbing out past where ordinary mortals venture. The surfers let most waves just pass through them; then miraculously, they’re up, like the heroes of old, sliding over and inside the white-capped wave as it breaks, then returning to the sea for the next one.

It turns out that surfing was a Native Hawaiian invention. Capt. James Cook’s first lieutenant sketched Hawaiians surfing off that same Kona coast in 1779. The surfers blessed their boards with chants, asking the responsible gods to give them courage. Watching surfers now, you realize that the ancient Hawaiians were right: there is something religious about the experience – for both surfer and spectator.

But maybe snorkelling’s your thing. The best snorkelling on the Big Island may be at Captain Cook, in Kealakekua Bay, where the legendary English explorer died in 1779.

Cook had named the isolated Polynesian islands the Sandwich Islands after he “discovered” them the year before. But Kealakekua Bay was sacred to the people who lived there. By Cook’s third visit, he was no longer welcome. The Hawaiians hurled rocks at his ship. One chief was shot and Cook was clubbed to death — two early, vivid casualties in the history of Indigenous-European relations on the islands.

The Honolulu newspapers turn up a contemporary item of interest. Last February, Native Hawaiians held a month-long convention — an aha, as they call it — on how to reconstitute themselves as a nation. This year, convention delegates are planning a ratification vote on the constitution they created, despite misgivings about the support they can expect from the Donald Trump administration.

As it turns out, Native Hawaiians — like other indigenous groups — have sought to re-chart their collective future for some time now. An independence movement has simmered since 1898, when the United States annexed the territory over the protest of the overthrown Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. The movement is just one element of a larger “Hawaiian renaissance,” including a massive language restoration effort, that has burgeoned since the 1960s.

But that’s just Hawaii. Most who fly south will go elsewhere for spring break.

So how about it?  Wherever you go – between golf games, trail rides and Mai Tais at the pool, how about learning something about the indigenous people of your tropical destination? What are their contributions — cultural, political, economical? What are their aspirations, their concerns? What displacements and accommodations have they experienced?

Attain that new way of seeing things, the true destination of travel. Then come home and maybe turn your eyes on this place: on cultural gifts such as lacrosse or the birch bark canoe, on events such as the Cypress Hills Massacre, the Battle of Batoche, or the High Arctic Relocation. Maybe check out a powwow: have an Indian taco with some strawberry tea. Let the drums, dances and regalia move you, as well as the fact that such festivals endured despite the Indian Act’s ban on them, in effect until 1951.

In this Year of Reconciliation, we could do worse than become respectful tourists in our own land.  And those of us heading south can practise already. Happy March Break, everyone.

Jodi Bruhn is director of Stratéjuste Canada, an Ottawa-based consulting firm specializing in indigenous/Crown relations. She spent two weeks on a Big Island beach last February.