Indigenous Heritage Month

"For the dead and the living, we must bear witness" - Ellie Wiesel

Known as National Indigenous Heritage month, June is celebrated to recognize indigenous culture, history, and the struggles that innocent Natives faced. In honour of National Indigenous Heritage month, let’s dive into the backstory behind this nationally celebrated holiday—indigenous heritage.

Indigenous heritage, within Canada specifically, originates back to the formation of six main indigenous groups: the Woodland First Nations, the Iroquoian First Nations, the Plains First Nations, the Plateau First Nations, the Pacific Coast First Nations, and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins. All of these individual groups each had their own cultures and customs, based on their environmental surroundings. For instance, the Woodland First Nations migrated in search of their food, because of their changing environmental conditions. However, the Iroquoian First Nations did not migrate, and instead harvested crops, because their environmental conditions suited their food requirements. In addition, each indigenous group had their own spiritual beliefs, clothing, and modes of transportation.

Life changed dramatically for these six indigenous groups when the European colonizers arrived. Several European nations, such as France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, embarked on a journey to conquer the Americas. Eventually much of the Indigenous population was wiped out, due to the Europeans killing innocent Natives, and the diseases that the Europeans brought, which decimated the indigenous groups. Indigenous heritage month serves as a memory to the millions of Natives who lost their lives at the hand of the colonizers.

The colonial conflict among the Europeans was ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, which proclaimed that France would release its colonial holdings, which include Canada and some American states. Britain became the main colonial power in the Americas, and placed restrictive laws against the six indigenous groups.

The Treaty of Versailles was enacted in 1763, which caused the six indigenous groups to cede most of their land. The treaty also proclaimed that Canada would officially be a part of the British Empire. Consequently, the British and the six nations formed a military alliance, one based on commercial and material gain for the British. This alliance fluctuated however, as the six Nations held resentment for the British, and the British were solely focused on their own personal gain.

As a result of the newfound peace in Canada, more and more immigrants, settlers, and colonizers arrived. For example, after American independence in 1776, many American who were displaced by the Revolutionary War came to Canada. Naturally, they placed harsh demands that required land from the six indigenous groups. The British forced the indigenous groups to cede even more land, and when the Natives refused to oblige, the British-Indigenous alliance weakened. The British now viewed the indigenous groups as “interdependence,” rather than actual allies.

Massive economic changes occurred for the six indigenous groups. For example, the British and the French traded with the Natives, causing the indigenous groups to mainly focus on acquiring resources that met the colonizers’ needs, such as fur and animal pelts.

In the early 1800s, the British gained a profound interest in “civilizing” the Indians. This interest was based on the belief of British superiority and Indian inferiority. Several laws and legislations were passed to deprive the six indigenous groups of their civil rights. For example, the British forced the Indians to abandon their cultural customs, and often encouraged them to convert to Christianity. Despite these efforts, legislation was still passed to grant the six indigenous groups civil liberties. For instance, a number of acts were passed to regrant the indigenous groups their lost land.

During the 1900s, the six indigenous groups struggled to assimilate into Canadian society. They still lacked some of their rights, and were often faced with harsh criticism. Despite these struggles, in 1996, June 21st was officially designated as National Aboriginal Day in Canada. Also, in 2009, June became known as National Indigenous Month in Canada.

These nationally recognized holidays serve as a remembrance of the struggles, pain, and death that the indigenous peoples faced, and to remind us to never repeat the same mistakes again.





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