Tuesday, 18 October 2011

From Violence to Blessing

A few years ago I was invited to do a presentation in an academic conference in St Paul's University in Ottawa (see below). The topic of discussion centered around Vern Neufeld Redekop's profound notions of mimesis and its role in social violence and reconciliation. The title of this entry comes from Redekop's book, From Violence to Blessing: how an understanding of deep-rooted conflict can open paths to reconciliation. It's an excellent book, and I think it should be required reading for new teachers/bureaucrats into the Government of Nunavut.

My talk was on Inuit Knowledge and specifically on an assessment model that I call "family health model" that I developed to help me get a better grasp of the nature of Nunavut's social/political issues and what to advocate for in the social development discourse in Nunavut.

Indigenous Knowledge and its Role in the Healing of Deep-rooted Conflicts

Jpt Arnakak
Qikiqtani Inuit Association

a fool sees not the same tree the wise man sees
William Blake, proverbs from hell

Conflict arises not only from misunderstanding but from an unwillingness to watch and listen. Inuit of the Canadian Artic were spared overt violence in the taking of our lands and ways of livelihood but the experience has left deep scars nonetheless. The scars stem from the fact that inappropriate labels, such as “primitive”, “pagan”, “stone-age”, etc. were used to justify the appropriation of our rights as full human beings worthy of respect for its own sake. The tree remains the same no matter who does the seeing though it’s a bit worse for wear. There is yet hope for Inuit to take their rightful place in the family of humanity. To hope for the past is unrealistic. What needs to be done now is to create an environment of hope and validity for Inuit culture and language. The creation of Nunavut is a test for multi-culturalism in Canada where not only immigrant cultures are recognized as valid forms of being but that this tolerant society is founded on how it treats its first peoples.

In the book, From Violence to Blessing (Redekop, 2002), and my introduction to the theory of mimesis, “deep-rooted conflict” is defined in terms of a group’s and/or individual’s reactions to perceived “threat to the satisfiers of identity needs” (p. 14). Redekop schematizes being and self with five identity needs: meaning, connectedness, security, recognition and action. (p. 31) -He suggests, rightly in my mind, that these needs are acculturated upon the child (the parents’ and society’s value system, beliefs, methods and biases) and assumed through a mimetic or imitative process.

Deep-rooted conflict between “enemies”, then, arise not from misunderstanding-which holds out hope for redress-but from an unwillingness to share and extend to the other what one may reasonably demand and expect for oneself: a level of autonomy and a safe and secure environment in which to live and construct meaning (whether spiritual, philosophical or concrete).

In this presentation, I want to structure my talk around a possible model for addressing these five needs (meaning, connectedness, security, recognition and action). I want to speak about Indigenous Knowledge (and especially Inuit Qaujimaningit, or IQ) as it relates to social policy development. Here I want to introduce a new concept that I call autochthonic epistemology or “birth-from-the-earth knowledge”, and how this concept may be used in policy development and analysis.

As an Inuk from the Baffin region, I come from a hunter-gatherer society and culture that relies largely on marine mammals as the basis of its sustenance economy.

-What I mean by “sustenance economy” is that knowledge of the ecology of the surround gotten by living and being in the surround, and how that knowledge is used as a means of sustainable livelihood in harmony with the environment and its flora and fauna. Sustenance economics is a fundamental feature of Autochthonic Epistemology-

A sustenance culture, like Inuit culture, relies on the family structure as a means to pass on and ensure the survival and advancement of its genes, knowledge and collective experience as expressed in its mythology, cosmogony and technology. The family structure is the first natural intra-subjective social construct to confront human beings and it is within the family structure that a child develops as a person.

In terms of philosophic flavour and spiritual beliefs, Autochthonic Epistemology (AE) is ecology-based and considers-to varying degrees- Nature to be sacred. IQ cosmology and spiritualism is based on the Sedna myth, a feminine “indweller” (as Tim Leduc, a PhD candidate at York U, puts it), a personified force of Nature. Sedna resides in the abyss, not only governing the sea mammals that make up the majority of Inuit diet but also She has the capacity to influence the weather and, therefore, the ice and snow conditions and the movement of animals. Sedna is the central Mother Earth figure in IQ and the animals, being Her children, have souls like human beings do and, therefore, deserving of our respect and deference for they give us life. (Houston, Diet of Souls, 2004 Triad Films)

This broad and brief survey of the features of AE (sustenance economy that is family- and kinship- based, Nature and Her bounty having deep spiritual/existential significance and meaning, etc.) is by no means exhaustive but this is sufficient for my present purposes where I want to argue for the validity and power of Indigenous Knowledges as means of healing the structural scars and psychological effects of colonialism on indigenous societies.

I’ve constructed a Family Health Model consisting of four basic axioms or principles that I believe warrant our attention in assessing and analysing current social conditions of Inuit:

1. The family is the primary life-support system of its constituents;

2. the family belongs to a larger network called community and society;

3. the family is the means of transferring knowledge, skills, language and values; and

4. the family is the fundamental economic unit.

I do not suggest that these particular synergistic elements necessarily apply to all cultures of AE but they will serve sufficiently to capture, I hope, valuable insights into to the actual health and wellbeing of Inuit as a distinct aboriginal linguistic and cultural group in Nunavut.

Before I get back to the family health model, though, I would like in he following section to present a humble re-interpretation of the tremendous power of the mimesis framework as related to colonialism and post-colonial healing.

Canada’s hitherto “hands-off” policy on Inuit started shifting, after the 1930’s, into an overtly paternalistic one. Regular bouts of mass death from starvation and disease have often been cited as the reason for settling Inuit into centralized locations, to better provide and administer social services. But it is rather interesting that the world then was just recovering from a world war and already it was on the brink of another conflict of unprecedented geopolitical proportions.

I would argue that it was, it is, for sovereignty reasons, to geopolitical factors, that Canada acted thus, acts thus. The resettlement of Inuit families from Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and North Baffin to the High Arctic are concerns of state-craft not of social justice not of natural justice. Most Aboriginal communities are situated so arbitrarily that no natural order, no rhyme or reason, is discernibly respected in the construct of the settlement.

The social and economic carrying capacity of the environment and family and kinship structures is actively disrupted and supplanted by an economy of consumerism and brand-name fixation served by a monopoly interest in exchange for natural resources and real estate. We’ve been moved about and quarantined and our cultures and languages culled like diseased and undesirable cattle.

The maturation process of the aboriginal children is also disrupted at many different levels: neuro-biological, physical, psychological, socially, culturally and materially. This is achieved by way of chronic poverty and an overarching social services system geared toward a specific group: Aboriginal peoples, the voiceless permanent wards of the state.

The education system is not designed to impart skills and knowledge for it’s an ersatz system intended instead to take away rather than to give choices in life. In Nunavut, “age-appropriate” passing is rampant and the children have little or no sense of continuity and context for what is presented before them. With their mother-tongue socially devalued by the system their choices and prospects become severely limited geographically and psychologically. They are rendered ineffectual by the system starting from the day the child is registered in the system.

Fanon (1959) says a colonialised culture is outright assaulted and devalued by the colonizers, “transformed into instinctive patterns of behaviour”, that all efforts are made to suggest that the colonialised people are defective somehow even unto biology and genetics. Given this, the colonialised are incapable of governing themselves and therefore require a ruling class from the dominant power for the sake, and only for the sake, of hegemony and self-interest of the state.

Fascism is merely another form of this logic imposed inward as well as outward. Fascism is the corporate son of hegemony. The militaryindustrial complex that is fascism requires constant source of war and conflict to maintain itself. How fascism quells criticism and resistance is most interesting.

The populous is inundated by the corporate culture with images of war and destruction so as to desensitize it to the complex’s requisite environment and needs, as its militaristic nature demands. We are somehow put in some sort of a trance, obsessing on the objects identified by our governments as either good for or threats to our personal safety and security. We are fed garbage and told to diet, metaphorically and literally: it’s a double-bind that makes it easier to regulate and relegate us into mindless docility.

Critical thinking, conscience and humility are the enemies of the privileged few who’ve built around a lie that they are different, idealized forms of humanity while the rest are merely God’s experimental accidents, including the underclass of their own society.

Human history bears out this type of thinking, this type of being where corporatism (the obsessive need to regiment society by class and status) has been allowed to go unchecked:

Monarchies, as Thomas Paine so succinctly puts it, are founded on the absurd idea of permanent “degradation and lessening of ourselves” for the sake of short-term, temporary political and social convenience.

“Most wise men, in their private sentiments, have ever treated hereditary right with contempt”, he says, that “many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest”. (Paine, 1776)

Give a tyrant an inch...

The papacy was able to achieve continentally what the warlords and kings of Europe could only do locally, to subsume humanity spiritually, politically and corporately, by showing us who our enemies are and how their utter and total destruction is necessary for the completion of God’s design from the inside out. Round ammo for Christians and square ones for the infidel just in case God can’t tell the difference.

The trans-national corporations (ideological in the East and socioeconomic in the West), in turn, are able to achieve globally as the papacy could only dream of: total domination and brand loyalty. The brand-naming of services to human needs is its brain-child.

The common thread running through these apparently different forms of governments is the narcissistic obsession with differentiation of self from the other, the fear that drives the need to insulate one from the real world. In a word, the terrifying world needs to be developed and modified to better suit the autistic needs of the privileged few.

Running parallel with this dark side of humanity is an inborn desire to learn, desire to adapt, a desire to achieve a sense of one’s humanity and to transcend one’s beginnings.

If one may characterize the discourse of fear, superstition and plunder as autistic, then one may extend to humanism the need to communicate and dialogue with the other where, as Cheyne and Tarulli (1999) say,

“The other constitutes not a passive listener, nor a receiver of ready-made message... but rather as a co-participant simultaneously creating and created by the utterance... and a factor in [the dialogue’s] content, structure and style... Thus, the quality and productivity of dialogue depend on many aspects of the other and of the relationship between the utterance and the other”. (civility, courtesy)

Where the discourse of fear, superstition and plunder bases its power on non-human ideals (usually of heaven) and a perfected time and space for the taking, the humanist discourse sees the past, present and future of humanity as an evolutionary/historical process, warts and all. This makes humanist discourse a necessarily evolving, dynamic, participatory phenomenon grounded on honest reflection.

In speaking about the novel and story-telling, Rorty says that “Our actions can be justified only when we are able to how these actions look from the points of view of all those affected by them” (Redemption From Egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises). He goes on to say that “Most novels tell us how other erring mortals think of themselves, how they contrive to put the actions that appall us in a good light, how they give meaning to their... lives. The problem of how to live our own lives then becomes the problem of how to balance our needs against those of people like them”. (phronesis)

Up to this point I’ve been speaking in rather broad and abstract strokes, though, I hope, not frivolously. I have attempted to trace an outline to which I want to draw a contrast. If one may define corporatism in terms of uniformity, standardization and linear modality of being then surely there is an opposite but equally valid modality of being that celebrates diversity, adaptability and acceptance of uncertainty as a fundamental feature of Nature; a philosophy willing to live within the surround and possibilities of Nature. (environmentally destructive methods of production and technological innovations that are likewise destructive, armed conflicts, etc. would be contrary to AE philosophy, whereas cultivation of sustainable economic activities is one of its tenets. AE has never been anti-trade.)

Theory of Abundance
To illustrate this I must resume my earlier description of the family health model and here elaborate how I envision analysts and researchers using model as a conceptual tool.

The first axiom of the family health model states that the family structure is the primary life-support system of its members. The focus here is directed at the needs of not only the children, the parent(s) and kin but also at the roles and responsibilities of each member to the continuing health and viability of the family structure, which the second axiom says belongs to a larger network called the community.

In accordance with this line of reasoning, just as the parent(s) are responsible to all extent possible to socialize and invest into the child pre- and post-partum and beyond, the community in turn is responsible for providing the best possible environment and support for parents and early childhood development. Piliriqatigiingniq (working together) and tunnganarniq (social deference) lead to the path of healthy and sustainable mode of being.

The basic concept to note here is that the raising of children (or human development, in general terms) is not a drain on limited family and community resources but is instead viewed as an invaluable and necessary investment into human potential and promise. Human beings; not only can they learn but they also have an amazing capacity to create new things and methods and, hopefully, refine them into integrated forms.

Investment into human development, then, is not a “forced-growth factor” but is a necessary process of a living, breathing society more analogous to the Kreb cycle than book-keeping. Mere numbers and data then become windows into how we value and treat human lives as matter of policy and practice.

The second axiom speaks not only of the human community but also the ecology and environment. In IQ, knowledge of ecology and climate, and use of resources has been acquired and accumulated over generations. IQ insights into interaction between humans and the environment are based on the notion of cycles and periodic behaviour. All natural phenomena are framed as embeddings of resonant patterns within resonant patterns, of weather, animal movements, and seasonal conditions. There is a sense of familiarity with and relatedness to the environment and cosmos in AE.

The third axiom states that the family is the means of transmitting knowledge, values and skills to live within the environment that sustains us. Language, culture and the use of technology in AE, far from being static, are as dynamic and participatory as one would expect living societies should be. Inuit culture, as humble as it is, has a huge presence in the national consciousness of Canada. Inuit technology and know-how have made invaluable contributions to science and other remarkable human achievements. AE is real. IQ is real.

In terms of economic wealth, AE defines such not only in terms of material resources but the collective knowledge and skills of the family and community are recognized as the true basis of wealth and capacity. Seen in this light, the family really does act as the fundamental unit of AE-based economies. This does not mean that individual members have no place in AE, the family is the beginning of belonging and actualization of persons.


Autochthonic Epistemology has ancient roots but that does not mean that it’s primitive. The tree need not be cut down to build a garden. The garden would be the poorer and incomplete without the tree. In the I Ching, there is a hexagram that denotes an image of a lone tree that holds the integrity of the landscape.

The integration and recognition of AE into the social fabric is essential for the healing of societies living in intolerable contradictions of deep-rooted conflict. Given that our social policies and legislation act as major contributing factors to the environment of colonialism, our work must begin from basic first principles, those that facilitate the growth and nurturing of healthy individuals and communities: Meaning, Connectedness, Security, Recognition and Action.

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