Canadians rule in favor of American Indian oral history

Heather Fors

American Indians consider their oral histories in much the same way Christians use their Bible. A recent decision has allowed them to also use their history as a defense in court.
A Dec. 11 Canadian Supreme Court decision made it easier for American Indians to reclaim lost land. The courts decided that Native oral history can be contractually binding in land dispute claims.
This ruling overturned a 1991 British Columbian court decision stating that the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en tribes — who have been fighting since the 1970s — did not have rights to land in northern British Columbia. The Supreme Court reversed this ruling because a trial judge disregarded some Native oral history and minimized other Native oral evidence.
Danielle Porter, a University graduate with degrees in history and American Indian studies, who now works in the American Indian Learning Resource Center, agreed with the decision. She said that giving Native oral history precedence in the courtroom would make it harder for any government to deny the validity of the land claims.
“Oral history should be allowed,” she said. “It’s such a basic part of the Indian culture.”
“The oral tradition for us is our way of life … [it’s] our bible,” said Liberal Arts junior Shirley Keezer. She added that Native people can relate to one another simply because they have survived the same fights and struggles with non-Indian governments over their lands and traditions.
Dennis Jones, assistant education specialist in the Department of American Indian Studies and an Ojibwe from the Nicickousemenecaning reserve in Ontario, Canada, said the Natives in Canada have title to the land. However, he said the claims are often disputed because during the treaty-making process non-Indian governments stole the land from the Natives. Existing records show discrepancies, such as not having the proper signatures.
In the Unites States, Native land and treaty rights disputes have ensued. However, the issues surrounding the conflicts are different than those in Canada.
“The U.S. and Canada have different laws and had different ways of taking the land,” said Jones.
Jones added that the United States used the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 to trick the Natives into giving up much of their land.
Through the allotment process the American Indians were given specific amounts of land and told to use it for farming. They were then given the right to break up and sell their land. However, due to tax neglect and forfeiture, much of this land was taken away by the American government, said Representative Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Mpls. Citizens, not knowing the land had belonged to the Natives, then purchased the property.
The recent court decision is aiding Canadian Native peoples to receive either their land or monetary compensation for the land they once lost.
Kahn said the government has, within the last 15 years, tried having land available for the American Indians. By giving them state land and money, they avoided taking land from those who bought it legitimately from the government.
“I feel like they’ve been there (for a long time too) so they don’t know any better. But I think we are entitled to (the land),” said Keezer, a member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe. Keezer said she thinks the court’s decision was a positive change. She said all Native Americans must be brought together in their struggle over land and traditions, “because there are so many things we argue with the government about, but we all have the same fight.”
Minnesota’s Assistant Attorney General David Iverson, who represents the Department of Natural Resources, said testimony used in courts now is largely based on American Indian historians’ accounts and mind-sets when the treaties were signed, as well as on their current beliefs.
“Any kind of history is relevant in our case. You have to look at the history of the time to see what they were thinking [then],” he said.
Jones said laws passed within the last 70 years have gathered momentum for the Native American struggle.
“Oral history is the basis of the people’s history. If that is recognized — like the people in Canada — then they have a leg to stand on.”
Jones added, “In order for everything to be true, it doesn’t have to be written.”