The History Lesson

david-vs-goliath-paintingI get vexed sometimes.

I am generally a pretty patient person but I do grow rather annoyed when people presume to lecture me on history when they clearly do not have a firm grasp of it themselves.

I do not have a pile of letters after my name, I swear sometimes, I tend to go on a rant when someone pushes my asshat tolerance to its limits. But what I do and what I have always done, is pay attention. When I study something I try to study it from as many angles as possible, I take into account context, the author’s probable bias and then go from there. I have no patience for people who do not take the same due care and then presume to lecture me. Thats why I speak about history. I try to do it without lecturing.

I think this started when I was a kid. I was maybe seven years old – it was Louis Riel day and I proudly told Merv “Listen pop. Louis Riel was a hero and should have been a father of confederation.” I had been reading a lot of books and that seemed to be the consensus of most historians aside from the rabid colonialists. Merv looked down at me and shocked me by saying “If we had listened to Gabriel Dumont, history would be very different. Riel was not a bad man but he cost us our chance at winning the revolt.” This shook my world view. I immediately reread several books that described the battle of duck lake, and saw that Merv was right, that Riel had prevented the Metis from completing the rout of the RCMP under Crozier, thereby letting them live to fight another day rather than wiping them out and demoralizing the Canadian Government.. I have written before that I believe history sometimes hinges on what look like small events, and this was one of those events.

I guess that’s why seeing so many young people so completely ignorant of their history bothers me. When I see Indian kids who don’t know the wondrous beauty of our history, of all the reasons we have to be proud of our heritage, I am baffled. This is of primary importance – without our history, our culture, we have nothing. To a people who have lost almost everything that is absolutely un-allowable. I work with our young people to teach them that we have much of which to be proud; that the mere fact we survived 200 years of genocidal policy is victory.

My people are struggling. We know what genocide means – from a population of about 65 million across North and South America, with an estimated 15 million in the area now known as Canada, to less than 1.5 million in Canada now. We had true oppression and marginalization. Even now in Canada we live under what amounts to apartheid, with separate laws governing Indians from “normal Canadians”. It was still legal to kill us into the 1930’s, and until the 1960’s you had to have written permission to leave the rez. We are governed by the Indian Act, a racist, sexist set of laws written to keep us marginalized. We had residential schools, places designed to “assimilate” us. My own family had several members who went to Residential schools, where they were beaten, starved and tortured and forced to adopt a colonizer’s language and religion. I myself attended the last Residential school in Alberta.

We (the Metis) were displaced not once but twice, first from our ancestral lands in the Red River, then from where we had settled in Central Alberta. We accepted land in a harsh place in Northern Alberta, because we knew we were never getting our ancestral lands back. But we do yearn to go home. It’s hard to explain because so many of us just struggle to live, and have no time to talk about wishful thinking. It bothers me when so many young Metis do not even know their own history. I try to teach them by teaching them to be proud and to never back down, to stand up for what is right even when its not easy, even when it hurts. I try to lead by example but it’s not easy. I guess this is why when people try to appropriate something so painful, when they try to steal our story, I get mad, and mad Ryan is an unpleasant Ryan who has no problem telling people exactly what he thinks, sometimes bluntly and painfully.

I see these same problems now with young Jewish people in North America. Aside from a few, they have not been properly taught their own history, and they have been sold a false narrative. Instead of being proud at surviving almost ridiculous odds, and achieving something no other displaced indigenous people has ever accomplished, they feel shame at their people’s success. How messed up is that? They come from a people who, today, number maybe 14 million worldwide, yet whose contributions to the world far outweigh their mere numbers, yet they feel ashamed? They come from a nation that survived two thousand years of exile, only to emerge triumphant to retake their ancestral lands from the hands of their colonizers. yet they are made to feel like they have done something wrong and must apologize? No.

We need to ask: how did we allow the twisting of the quintessential bully story? How did we allow them to turn David into the guy bullying Goliath? Even more troubling, how did we allow the people who claim to be descended from the Philistines to turn Goliath into the underdog? 1.6 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews, yet we allow the narrative that a tiny sliver of land belonging to the Jews oppressing Muslims who control 99% of the landmass in the Middle East?

It’s really simple. Jews trace their presence in JUDEAH back four thousand years, and can demonstrate their cultural genesis there, while Arabs trace theirs to the Hejaz. Yet until recently nobody ever thought to say “Jews are from Judeah, Arabs are from Arabia”? And we wonder why young people are so damn confused?

How can we expect the young people to stand up when it’s so much easier to go along with the flow? I believe by teaching them pride in self, by letting them know its OK to stand up and that you never have to look at the ground. These kids are the next generation, they are the ones who will have to live with the decisions we make. It’s my belief that it’s our duty to empower them, to teach them to stand up, to speak up and to be proud of themselves and their people. I know it’s not going to be easy – nothing worth doing is – but I know I can’t really live with the alternative.

Can you?


Ryan Bellerose

A member of the indigenous Metis people, Ryan grew up in the far north of Alberta, Canada with no power nor running water. In his free time, Ryan plays Canadian Rules Football, reads books, does advocacy work for indigenous people and does not live in an Igloo.

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