First Nations: trauma and soundscape

Tell them we don’t just wander around.

—Sami herder, to ethnographer Robert Paine

Standing Rock protests, 2016.

Further to my post on the harrowing story of Grassy Narrows, and the resulting series on Native American cultures, I’ve been reading

  • Tanya Talaga, All our relations: indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (2020),

based on her 2018 lecture series. Talaga, a journalist, had to rediscover her Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. Whereas Shkilnyk’s book on Grassy Narrows is a detailed ethnography of the sufferings of one small community, Talaga extends her scope to the wider fate of indigenous peoples in north America and around the world—including the Inuit, tribal groups in Brazil, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Australian Aborigines. I’m also reminded of the fate of ethnic minorities in the PRC such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Talaga opens her account with the high incidence of suicides—particularly of children—in the territories of NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation), a group of forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario. From 1986 to 2017 there were over 558 suicides there; 37 people took their own lives in 2017 alone. The problem was common throughout First Nation bands in Canada, notably among the Inuit, where the suicide rate is ten times the national average.

Left: Inuit demonstration, c2018
Right: Sami climate strike joined by Greta Thunberg, 2020.

Nearly one in three Sami have thought about or attempted suicide. In Guarani-Kaiowá in southwest Brazil, the suicide rate is 34 times higher within indigenous communities than among the non-Indigenous population. In Australia too, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for all Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 34. Meanwhile incarceration rates are far higher than in the general population.

Talaga puts all this in the context of the global search for justice, civil rights, and freedom—subsuming environmental protection, housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and access to clean, drinkable water.

She sketches the painful colonial histories that have led to the ongoing plight of these peoples: genocide, disease, treaties betrayed, multi-generational trauma, discrimination, suppression of identity; residential schools and churches, constant official prevarication and obstruction.

As she notes, all this is strongly reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa. She cites Martin Luther King:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has triedas a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.

Against the legacy of the residential schools, the “lock hospitals” of Australia, and segregated hospitals in Canada, Tanaga meets fine community leaders striving to redress injustice, themselves mostly survivors of the residential schools.

NAN awards, 2019.

Yet despite the involvement of such enlightened figures and social scientists, a plethora of institutions—themselves responsible for much of the trauma—have been quite unable to tackle such problems, and are widely distrusted.

With a long succession of decrees falling far short, protests have been frequent for many decades. Despite the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline from 2016, construction has resumed under Trump, with his contempt for the environment.

Tanaga suggests that while education has long kept people in ignorance, it can now play a major role in alleviating the situation.

Here’s one of several of her talks to be found online:

* * *

While expressive culture may seem a cruel irrelevance in all this, it was precisely the forced removal of these people from their cultures that led to their sufferings.

So moving to soundscape, Mitchell Akiyama, in “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project”, unpacks the methodologies of the ten-hour radio series Soundscapes of Canada, recorded for CBC in 1973.

As project leader Murray Schafer observed, “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”. Prescriptively, the series warns against “the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity”.

Innovative and well-meaning as the series was, it appears as a “back to nature” project, and “what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include”. The recordings largely ignored urban soundscapes: “Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk”.

Also largely absent are the First Nations and its “visible minorities”. “Their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot”, dismissing

a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “re-education” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools”. […]

If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.

Of course, the “traditional”, and changing, cultures of indigenous cultures have also been a popular subject; what is at issue with this series is how they are kept separate, marginal. And it’s very common for a project to be less all-embracing than its title suggests (e.g. “Singers of the world“, “British music”, Punk).

As long as we bear this in mind, it’s quite natural to focus on a particular area within a culture; with the bolder aim of encompassing the soundscape of a whole culture, however, one has to be more inclusive.

Another post on the site explores the “hubbub” of First-Nation healthcare in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, and the film East Hastings pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012):

For Sami musical culture, we might start with the article “Sámiland: joiks of the tundra” in The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Among recordings of traditional song, Yoik: a presentation of Saami folk music comprises 3 CDs with a 310-page book. And here’s the playlist of the 1956 Folkways album Lappish joik songs from northern Norway (liner notes here):

For the maintenance of aboriginal cultures in Australia, click here. See also links under Society and soundscape.

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