Professor Susan Dion battles historical amnesia in her new book

In her first book – what she calls her life’s work – York education Professor Susan Dion battles historical amnesia, takes on the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples and retells stories involving First Nation peoples from a perspective that is neither romantic nor mythical.

Look in any of the tourist shops at the images of Aboriginals with teepees and totem poles, says Dion. That is how Canadians know themselves in relationship with Aboriginals. It is a pre-colonial, non-Aboriginal mythical view of First Nation peoples. It is not the reality of Aboriginal life today, and that’s the problem. Students are still being taught that pre-colonial romantic image.

The seeds for Dion’s book, braiding histories: Learning from Aboriginal Peoples’ Experiences & Perspectives (UBC Press, 2009), first germinated when, as an elementary school teacher and mother, Dion watched how the history and culture of Aboriginals was taught in the schools.

The teachers meant well, but to Dion, whose mother is aboriginal (Lenape/Potawatami), the representation of her people was all wrong. "They weren’t in a position to recognize the depth of their own ignorance," says Dion. "There is a desire to know, but it is a difficult history and it requires engaging with it."

Dion, cross-appointed to the School of Women’s Studies and the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, is primarily interested in reaching teachers with her book but says her work applies to all Canadians.

"Broadly speaking, Canadians have a lack of knowledge and understanding of the history of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. And the depth to which stereotypical representations are embedded in their ways of knowing requires a lot of work in order to disrupt those images."

What will it take to etch a realistic picture of the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals? When Dion approached teachers, she found them initially willing to change the way they taught about First Nation peoples, but they were then faced with teaching a history that was outside of their comfort zone and that aroused feelings of guilt in them, the administration, the students and their parents.

In learning about the building of the railroad across Canada, students were taught that non-Aboriginals came to the rescue of Aboriginals by giving them land, seeds and farm equipment. However, Dion says, Aboriginals were given land, seeds and machinery, but only after they signed a treaty giving their land away, and the seeds, land and machinery were often of poor quality. In addition, it was the overhunting of buffalo by non-Aboriginals that led to the lack of food for Aboriginal communities in the first place. When the Aboriginals made it work, despite the poor quality implements, a law was passed making it illegal for them to sell their produce off the reserves. That, she says, is a completely different story to the one that was taught.

Left: Susan Dion

"I’m continually overwhelmed by the depth of ignorance," says Dion. Most of the stories are from pre-colonial days and are often told from a non-Aboriginal perspective. Canadian history books show Aboriginals in canoes, on dog sleds, in teepees and wrapped in blankets, buckskin and feathers, while portraying non-Aboriginals as explorers and conquerors of savages. That is what Dion learned when she was growing up and it is still what she sees being taught in the schools, but it doesn’t represent the reality of the Aboriginal experience. Many university students don’t know anything about the Indian Act or about status cards.

"There’s a resistance to understanding the post-colonial contact period. This book is very much about understanding the resistance to understanding the relationship. It is very much about wanting to disrupt the moulded image of Aboriginals," says Dion.

She wants to retell the stories from a First Nation perspective. "We all have a responsibility to engage with these stories and come to know each other through them. Equity and justice demands that we come to know each other."

Dion and her brother Michael reread and relearned many of the stories written by non-Aboriginals about First Nation peoples. In doing so she was able to retell them from an aboriginal perspective in braiding histories. "It’s about getting non-Aboriginal people to hear us." Braiding histories also includes Dion’s mother’s experiences as an Aboriginal and her struggle with assimilation.

Dion hopes braiding histories will help bring about change both in and out of the classroom. Change is happening, she says. It just takes time and persistence.

She is already working on her next book, looking at Aboriginal women and the challenges they faced in maintaining their Aboriginal identity while assimilating.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer