Learning from the South

Images of people change with time. Here is John Chukuaskin Ashnola’s grave from Upper Keremeos. He became chief of the Ashnola people in 1866, until his death some fifty years later. He negotiated honourably for decades for land for his people and had an honoured gravesite on the edge of town, but now the town has been torn down for scrap, the creek and its forest in behind have been levelled, a ceremonial avenue of honey locusts has been cut down for firewood, the graves of his braves at his feet have been raked for arrow heads, the gravesite has been recently mined for gravel, and the cross has been knocked off. And yet at one time John was felt deserving of an expensive marble monument.

John Ashnola’s Gravesite in Neglect, Upper Keremeos, 1920s

I like to think he’s in the Beetle, trying to get it started for a quick exit. Photo taken in 2009.

That’s the Canadian version. Here’s the American one: Chief Joseph’s grave in the Nez Perce graveyard in Nespelem, Washington:

Chief Joseph, Honoured by the University of Washington, 1920s

Joseph remains honoured by hundreds of people today, with gifts of tobacco, books, tools, money, flowers, mirrors, artworks, stones, and other emblems, talismans and useful an beautiful things. Photo taken in 2009.

And isn’t that just the thing. The well-known history of settler-aboriginal relations in the northern American West is that Joseph and his people were driven close to the brink of mass slaughter by hangers-on of the US Army, while heroically and honourably trying to escape to Canada. The well-known story of settler-aboriginal relations in Canada is that John and his people made peaceful transfers of power built upon mutual respect. Peaceful, yes, and respectful locally, perhaps, but the Americans, with more to grieve, are a century ahead in terms of respect in a larger sense. The thing is, back in the 1920s, we all seem to have been at the same place. Now Canadians are going to have to look south for wisdom and experience in what to do a century later, once the romantic veneer has worn off.

Let’s start by paying John some respect. He made it his life’s calling.

3 replies »

  1. This is one aspect of history via the United States. Many Natives have fought VERY hard to get accurate portrayals of history and they still do. Many times there wishes are not granted. But in time comes some sort of progress. Who is fighting for that sight? Does Canada have any sort of national historical society? Also… I find it farfetched that the US, is referred to as Americans where Canada is also in North AMERICA. That is all. 🙂


    • Hi, no argument about the need for accurate portrayals of history. I really wish we had them. I have tried to do some myself. I think there are many better portrayals, especially of our region, in the United States than there are in Canada. If there were such a thing as a national historical society in Canada, it would not be much use, as Canada is not a national state. It might be some day, if the current government gets its way. At the moment, though, it remains a confederation of semi-autonomous provinces. And even there, at the provincial level, history is biased towards colonial society. It’s a huge issue, and you’ve put your finger right on it. Yup, I accept the criticism on the Americans thing, although I might point out that the term is tangled up with US-Canada relations, and I would just love to throw the darn thing out and come up with a new term, that is not prejudiced towards American colonialism of Canada. That serves us no use, in this valley in which we have more in common north and south than we do with the nations that rule us from the East. If “American” could be used without it prejudicing the United States of America, that would be grand. George Bowering, the poet, suggests USAmericans and Americans. Clever, but I’m still hoping we can do better. But your point is very good. Thanks for it. As for accurate portrayals of history, there is a great book by Cole Harris called “Making Native Space” that really blows the lid off of BC culture in the time of the creation of Indian Reserves. Did it make a difference? Sadly, no. But we have to keep trying. Blessings.


      • I plan to check the book out. If you have any other book suggestions I would be greatly obliged. I am overly curious about First Nations history in Canada.


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