In early May of 1463, a full twenty-nine years before Columbus ‘discovered’ what was to the Europeans the ‘new world’, a boatload of Mi’kmaq from what is now Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, set sail – actually they rowed – eastward into the open Atlantic. Some say it was a storm that took them out to sea. Others that they just wanted to see what was on the other side. But in any case, four months later, in late August, they made landfall on the west coast of England.
Why, you ask, has this event not been recorded? For the same reason the arrival of extraterrestrials hasn’t been recorded. It never happened. But that’s beside the point.
After a time, when rudimentary translation became possible, the locals noticed that these newcomers had taken to referring to all of the locals as the ‘indigenous’ peoples of the area, to which one outraged resident pointed out that most of his fellow locals were in fact Normans, and hence not indigenous to the area. The Celts, of which he was a proud descendant, had been conquered and colonized a scant three centuries earlier. His exact words, translated from 15th Century Gaelic? “Indigenous, my asshole!”
But the Mi’kmaq didn’t care. As far as they were concerned, by ‘indigenous’ is meant “whoever was there where and when we first landed. Had we stayed for three or four centuries, they’d still be indigenous to us, though I suppose if someone else landed three or four centuries later, they’d consider us as indigenous as the Normans, just as we considered the Normans as indigenous as the Celts.”
Had these Mi’kmaq explorers gone on to France or Spain, the French and Spanish too would have counted as ‘indigenous’. Indigenous to France or to Spain? No, indigenous to what to the Mi’kmaq was the ‘new world’. “How these new worlders carved up the territory between them is their business, not ours.”
What to the Mi’kmaq prior to 1463 was the old world, was to the Europeans after 1492 the new. But in both languages, Mi’kmaq and English, ‘indigenous’ is an indexical. It doesn’t refer to who got here first. It refers to who was here when we got here.
Every people has a foundation myth. We Jews have the Exodus, Texans have the Alamo, those of the Blood First Nation that they’ve always been here, and so on. None of these myths are true. The Exodus never happened. The Alamo was about the freedom to own slaves. And Blood DNA is not just coincidentally Asian.
The truth is that, Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen some people conquered and either exterminated or enslaved or colonized by other people, and then those people by yet others, and so on. It’s “Nature red in tooth and claw!”
Natural, yes. But, you ask, is conquest and colonization moral? It’s funny – is it not? – that the question seems to make perfect sense when asked about the Israelis in Palestine or about Europeans in southern Alberta, but no sense at all when asked about the Normans in England, or about what’s probably not the First Nations in southern Alberta.
I’m confused. No doubt there’s some kind of statue of limitation being invoked here. Could someone please refer me to that clause in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? I’m pretty sure the Celts would like to know.