“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens, 1859)- that is, for the Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of North America, respectively. When foreign settlers first arrived on Canadian soil centuries ago, the First Nations peoples who had lived there long prior were willing to share the land and partake in the trading business, all the while maintaining their own cultural ways of life. In fact, trade had become equivalent to international diplomatic relations between Europe and the nation that would become Canada at one point (White, 2000). However, any cordiality that may have existed was short lived when the Europeans began colonizing the territory newfound to them. Not only did colonialism, the action of settling among and establishing control over indigenous people of an area, completely alter Indigenous identity, it also transformed their faith and had lasting effects on the perception of First Nations peoples to this day.
As successive governments began to wield more power, their main goal was dealing with the “Indian problem.” ‘Indians’ were regarded as the useless, helpless, uncivilized ‘Other,’ and Europeans sought to rectify this ‘issue’ by commanding complete control over what these people identified themselves as in terms of names and categories (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). As a result of the fact that Christopher Columbus assumed he had landed in India when he had in fact landed in North America, the Indigenous peoples were misnamed ‘Indians,’ a misnomer that was subsequently used in reference to them in official government documents, such as the Indian Act (Fogelson, 1998). Another example of a term that came into play merely for legal purposes in documents such as the Indian Act is ‘tribes’ (Champagne, 2010). The Indian Act was a major part of colonialism, as its purpose was to essentially assimilate Indigenous peoples. It controlled many aspects of Aboriginal life, including Indian status, land, resources, and education (Henderson, n.d.). Before amendments, the Act was quite discriminatory and sexist, and forcefully revoked the identity of the Indigenous peoples. For example, status cards were introduced, which forced Indigenous peoples to prove their identity on a card while others lost their legal identity by not being able to receive one. More often than not, if a First Nations person did not have a status card, it was not by choice. Aboriginal women who married European men lost their status, as did any children they had had, essentially losing their identity as an Indigenous person and the rights that came along with it. However, the opposite was the case should a First Nations man marry a white woman (Corbiere, n.d.). Land reserved for Indigenous peoples was too small to farm and make a living on, as well as too small to hunt and trap. (Office of the Treaty Commissioner, 2000). In this sense, the Indigenous identity of being hunters was desecrated, and in an up-and-coming agricultural economy, a living could hardly be made. In 1951, the Indian Register was made to determine eligibility of status Indians for government programs and benefits. It excluded many authentic Natives due to poor organization, leaving them ostracized from potential assistance (Corbiere, n.d.). Prior to colonization, Native peoples identified primarily based on the clan system, which has since been obliterated by the European first-name last-name structure used for Indian registries. Naming tribes has also been the cause for great confusion, as European researchers studying Indigenous peoples would attempt to spell the name of the tribe phonetically. It was determined that this was done in an attempt to “provide a basis for the placement of tribes on certain reservations” (Morrison and Wilson, 2004). Different researchers’ interpretations made it seem as though there were far more tribes than there were; for example, Chippewa and Ojibwe are the same word, thus the same tribe (Corbiere, n.d.). Indigenous peoples lost their native language and ways of life and were forced by the white man to become as European as possible under the government’s terms. Over time, who Indigenous people were before contact merely became a story told by elders. Their identities, at least to everyone around them, became pieces of plastic. That said, peoples, through common language, sacred history, ceremonial cycles, and territory, are able to maintain identity even when undergoing major cultural changes (Holm et. al., 2003). While Indigenous peoples won in the battle of complete assimilation and have managed to preserve their identities in the sense of the ‘Peoplehood Matrix,’ clearly original Indigenous identity fell victim to colonialism.
Colonialism also drastically altered the faith of the Indigenous peoples. Before contact, First Nations peoples had three types of origin myths: earth-diver myths, culture hero stories and emergence stories. Indigenous peoples would communicate with their Creator through visions, music, and appreciation of nature. They believed that the world was populated with plants, animals and humans, and people’s failings could result in disaster. Their religion was not institutionalized, and their politics were often intertwined with it, as their leaders were often both of the spiritual and political kind. It did not attempt to explain any universal phenomenon, nor did it try to control others’ thoughts or ceremonies. It was cyclical in the sense that time was not a factor, and it very much focused on nature and appreciating all the Earth had to offer (Champagne, 2001). When European settlers arrived and began colonizing the people they regarded as so weak-minded and useless, they began the attempts of assimilation in the religious sense through a process called missionization. Throughout North America, religious figures attempted to impart their faith on the ‘heathens’ in various ways, and the reaction was mixed. Native communities responded with resistance, syncretism and in many cases, acculturation. Those who resisted mostly did so in secret as to avoid punishment of any kind. For example, the Californian Pueblos resisted Spanish attempts of religious assimilation, and only pretended to convert to Catholicism after reconquering. They still practiced their traditional religion in secret. Syncretism allowed for compromise, and resulted in many ceremonies today being so unique, such as smudging being performed in a Roman Catholic Mass. From syncretism new religions arose, examples being Peyotism, the Longhouse religion, the Washat religion, and several others (Champagne, 2001). Acculturation was the ideal outcome for the Europeans, as it meant a successful assimilation. It was also the easiest method to avoid punishment for the Indigenous peoples. For instance, Algonkians in New England completely adopted Christianity as the alternative was a brutal penalty (Champagne, 2001). The Christian religion was radically different from what Indigenous people knew. It was linear in the sense that the world began at Creation and is said to end at the time of the apocalypse. It also focused on a founder of the Earth rather than the Earth being the necessity for survival. These attempts at religious assimilation by the Europeans not only caused psychological confusion, but also social alienation for those who did not comply as well as the decimation of religious confidence.
While colonization affected many if not all aspects of Indigenous life while it was happening, the assimilation process that inevitably came along with it had long lasting damaging effects on Indigenous peoples and the way the rest of the western world viewed them. These effects are expressed first-hand by First Nations writers who, from the 1960s onward, were able to publish works serving as a voice against the injustice Indigenous peoples had endured for so long, in addition to personal memoirs and accounts of their own experiences of the result of colonization (Belanger, 2010). Colonialism changed just about everything for Native nations. New institutions were introduced as well as new forms of government, market economies, bureaucracy, courts, and police. These foreign customs created great divisions and conflict within the Indigenous ways of life and caused great confusion when Native peoples were expected to adapt and partake fully in the European ways of life. Aboriginal nations have barely had a chance to fully revitalize to the extent they thrived pre-contact and most likely never will. This is due to the fact that as a result of colonization, these nations rely on federal funding and tribal government support (Corbiere, n.d.). This has greatly hampered Indigenous peoples to be completely economically autonomous. Due to displacement, some Indigenous peoples do not and cannot know where their clan originated from. As a result of European researchers spelling clan names in various ways, some Indigenous people have discovered that they are actually of the same tribe, it had simply lost its original name because of said researchers. Not to mention the fact that upon early colonization, Europeans transported countless diseases that killed an incomprehensible number of Indigenous peoples. Now, in Canada, no Indigenous nation has more than 25,000 people. Colonialism is also the reason there has been such a negative connotation associated with Indigenous peoples. In fact, the term ‘tribe’ was associated with pre-civilized people and used in a derogatory manner against Indigenous peoples, a notion that sometimes lingers to this day (Scott and Marshall, 2005). The stereotypical image of a First Nations person is that of a ‘Noble Savage,’ and it is not uncommon to hear the words ‘lazy’ and ‘mooches’ when listening in on conversations about them. Mainstream media has done a poor job of representing history accurately and has instilled these racist and derogatory images in society’s mind. While the effects of colonialism have drastically altered the Indigenous ways of life to this day, progress is being made and voices for justice are being heard. That said, it will take much more time to even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to healing wounds left by the disastrous assimilation practices put into place during colonialism.
Colonialism was Europe’s attempt at expanding nation states. Upon first arriving in North America, the last thing Europeans were expecting were inhabitants, let alone ones so noticeably different from them in every sense. Being such a large area of land, it took settlers even longer to discover other First Nations peoples, for instance the Inuit in Alaska. This group of people were often classified as ‘Indians’ for the sole purpose of the Indian Act, despite being an inappropriate reference (Wotherspoon and Satzewich, 2000). Europeans did what they could to desecrate Indigenous lifeways and force the foreign ‘Other’ to become citizens of the Crown themselves. As time progressed, the government stepped up to make their actions legal, further dehumanizing First Nations peoples by assigning tags acknowledging their existence and sending missionaries to forcibly change their faith. The result was, of course, a loss of identity and great religious confusion, among countless other atrocities that have changed the face of Aboriginal people in Canada to this day, as well as the way they are regarded by others within the country. The consequences of colonization were detrimental, have been felt throughout generations and have resulted in the massive alteration of the face of Aboriginal people in Canada.