Meaning of Death

The Meaning of Indigenous People’s Suffering

Rosemary I. Patterson, Ph.D.
Rosemary I. Patterson, Ph.D., Author, Screenwriter
President of the Canadian Author Association/Vancouver Branch

Since early retirement from School Psychology in 1997 it has been my pleasure to leisurely research the history of Indigenous people in Hawaii, Australia, British Columbia, Tahiti, Marquesas Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Alaska. The result of this research has been eleven novels, six screenplays and now scripts for two documentaries.

During my research I have been struck by the suffering inflicted on Indigenous people by their technologically powerful but incredibly Ethnocentric Monocultural colonizers. Once these colonizers managed a foothold on foreign lands they set about to impose their value systems composed of Christianity, Democracy and Capitalism upon the occupants of the colonized lands. The value systems of the occupants were either left out of the equation completely or negated as inferior. Almost without exception the very land Indigenous people were living on or using to gather resources were redistributed to investors, developers or settlers coming from the colonizing countries, particularly if the land was seen to possess valuable renewable or non-renewable resources. The inhabitants of these lands were turned over to the military and/or the clergy to be controlled, assimilated and enculturated into the value systems of their colonizers. In the case of Australian Aborigines the British colonizers appeared to have decided very early (almost the day they landed) to eliminate the Indigenous people completely. Aborigines were shot, poisoned, hunted down by travelling squads of horsemen with repeater rifles and even chased for sport until relatively recently. The present Prime Minister of Australia even refuses to say “Sorry” for these past practices. These genocidal practices exist in some places to this day as in the case of the Indigenous people in West Papua (formerly Dutch New Guinea) handed over to control by Indonesia in 1962 by the United Nations. The West Papuan resources, land, gold, oil, gas, etc. are being extracted with little or no compensation to the Indigenous people. Any resistance with bows and arrows has been brutally dealt with as it was in East Timor. Even the raising of Independence flags or dialoguing about the rights of West Papauans is not tolerated.

The resulting suffering of indigenous people for several hundred years and in some cases even longer manifests in various sociological and psychological syndromes in descendants of Indigenous populations today. Marginalization of Indigenous peoples; self-medication and addiction at the seeming hopelessness of their situations; repressed anger at three hundred years of colonial exploitation resulting in epidemics of depression, and suicide; generational transmission of dysfunctional family dynamics from the residue of Residential Schools; incompletion of the Adolescent Identity Achievement task; lack of self-worth and feelings of toxic shame from centuries of putdowns and condemnation of Native Cultures; poor health and poverty; loss of languages, native history, and cultural practices, to name a few.

As a member of the International Network of Personal Meaning there is a question that immediately occurs to me when reviewing all this suffering of Indigenous Peoples. As Viktor Frankl would ask, how is it possible to find group and personal meaning out of all this Indigenous suffering? Another question that immediately occurs is one about finding a way to change the often “victim mentality” mind set common to many victims of colonial oppression to a mind set capable of empowerment and transformation for them.

As a direct descendant of one of the colonizing nations ( my father was English) I can formulate meaning for our group of descendants from Indigenous suffering, namely that our group desperately needs to examine our biases for any remaining, unconscious Ethnocentric Monoculturalism that still results in discrimination against Indigenous peoples. The three platforms of Christianity, Capitalism and Democracy, generally governing our politics and practice, also need to used in a socially responsible manner. Proponents of Christianity need to focus more on the compassion and service aspects of their religion rather than the judgement and condemnation all too frequently practised in the past. Proponents of Democracy need to try and move more towards grass roots Democracy instead of a world where it costs a hundred million dollars to get elected to a New York Senate seat. Proponents of Capitalism need to add a strong platform of social responsibility and environmental stewardship to their business practices. Our group also needs to try and provide a bridge of reconciliation between ourselves and our Indigenous brothers and sisters of the human race. The settling of long outstanding land claims and the provision of such empowering methods as scholarships for higher education to at least try and equal the playing field would be good starting points in this regard.

As for finding meaning of the suffering for groups and individuals who are descendants of Indigenous people I would suggest that they look at themselves with great pride. That these people have managed to survive and maintain their cultures and practices in the face of three hundred years of colonial exploitation and attempted forced acculturation is a testimony to the underlying courage, innovativeness, adaptation and flexibility of their character. It is also a testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit.

I would also like to point out to both groups of people, descendants of colonizers and descendants of the Indigenous people that recent events in Alaska testify to the possibility of deriving extremely positive results from efforts at reconciliation and justice. ANSCA, the Alaska Native Land Claims settlement of 1978, formed the basis for empowerment and transformation of the three groups of native peoples there, Aleut, Eskimo and Indian. An unique social experiment was conducted in Alaska from 1978 to the present as thirteen Native Corporations were created under the settlement and given forty-four million acres of land and close to a billion dollars. The experimental nature of the settlement was that the three groups of Alaska natives had to adapt to the rules of Capitalism as the thirteen Native Corporations formed and their shareholders, the native people of the land, had to quickly learn to adapt to the ways of corporations to survive.

The good news is that they did so, and went on to form non-profit corporations as well to take care of their education and health matters. These corporations are now pouring in profits from investments to resurrect and maintain the Indigenous culture as well as some aspects of the Indigenous way of life. One hundred and thirty million dollars was also poured into the establishment of High Schools in over two hundred Native Villages so that Alaskan Village Elementary graduates no longer had to go to boarding schools as far away as Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools in Oklahoma to receive a High School education. A new generation of educated Alaska Natives (educated in both western technology and their own value systems that include social responsibility) is now available to run these Corporations. The Corporations are now a major force in the economy of Alaska.

Alaska is a microcosm demonstrating the fact that Indigenous people can transcend their suffering by creating newfound meaning and purpose in their lives. This transcendence can be an inspiration for all people impacted by years of historical oppression. Others can also learn valuable lessons from these experiences.

Further Reading Suggestions

Cole, Douglas & Chaikin, Ira. “An Iron Hand Upon The People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast.” Vancouver. Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.

Frankl, Viktor E. “Man’s Search For Meaning.” New York, Pocket Books, 1959.

Haebich, Anna. “Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800 – 2000.” Fremantle, Western Australia. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000.

Haycox, Stephen. “Alaska An American Colony.” Seattle. University of Washington Press, 2002.

Kanahele, George Hu’eu Sanford. “Ku Kanaka Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values.” Honolulu. University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

Maclellan, Nic & Chesneaux, Jean. “After Moruroa: France in the South Pacific.” Melbourne. Ocean Press, 1998.

Patterson, Rosemary I. “Return of the Canoe Societies: A Literary History of the First Nations’ Coastal Tribes of B.C.” Philadelphia. Xlibris Corporation, 1999.

Sue, David Wing & Sue, David. “Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice.” New York. John Wiley & Sons. Inc. 1999. Third Edition.

Wong, Paul T. P. “Meaning Centered Counselling.” In Wong, Paul T. P. & Fry, Prem S., Editors, “The Human Quest For Meaning.” Mahwah, New Jersey. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1998.