Speaking for the Dead

By James LaForest

Kaskaskia map copy

We are approaching that time of year when the dead, our dead, come to mind more often than in other times of the year. Written into the discourse of the seasons, imprinted on our Western and Indigenous imaginations are rituals and commemorations that, in a manner of speaking, bring us into a renewed relationship with our ancestors. Western traditions, from both the Pagan and Christian religions, have elaborate and beautiful observances that acknowledge the spirit world, and give honor to saints, martyrs and the faithful departed in the triduum of Allhallowtide: Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The Celtic feast of Samhain is deeply associated with Halloween, but remains for practitioners a separate celebration. Many Pagans and Christians believe that this period of time is a liminal period, between seasons, when the “veil” between the world of the living and the spirit world is at its thinnest.

These are thought-provoking, enriching ideas, bringing us back to the most fundamental characteristics of identity. How we relate to the dead beyond mourning and funerals is part of that which defines a civilization. For example, gravesites are often the most telling aspects of archaeological digs. Cemeteries are frequently vast expanses of memorial, history, and art combined. And the mystery of death and its relationship to the living obviously does not stop at the burial grounds.

All this has got me to thinking about experiences I’ve had over the past decade or so with regard to the dead. To be more specific, how often we take it upon ourselves to speak for the dead. It’s one thing to speak of the dead, or to refrain from “speaking ill of the dead” but it is quite another to claim to speak for them. We ensure that the dead are not forgotten, we memorialize them, build monuments and so on, but these are all forms of speaking of the dead, not for them.

Speaking for the dead means taking it upon oneself to offer an opinion on the deceased’s behalf. Perhaps a child can make such a move. For example, Meghan McCain can justifiably say that her father would never have voted for such and such a bill; a son or daughter can say, “mom would never believe that her neighborhood has become a terrible place to live” or “dad would be furious to know what’s become of politics today.” But beyond that, do strangers have the right to speak for the dead? Even those they call “ancestors?”

Two scenarios that involve French Canadians and Métis have led me to consider this distinction. Both scenarios are absolutist perspectives about our history. One is somewhat more benign: the romanticization of colonial French history into a sort of BBC period piece in which the Filles de Rois came ashore in fancy ball gowns and French Canadian settlements became versions of Norman villages in Nouvelle France. Contributing to this fantasy is the notion among many genealogists and family tree enthusiasts that all their ancestors must have been among the upper tiers of society. Maybe at one time or another, we all want to think we come from royalty, or in the New World, from famous fur traders and the daughters of Indian chiefs. But even faced with alternative facts, the absolutists frame the picture as they would have it, rather than how it was. Rather than acknowledge the humanity behind the history, they instead fail our ancestors by creating a narrative for their lives while their real voices are silenced.

The second scenario is a rhetoric of demonization aimed at the French Canadian world of New France, a world whose descendants, according to some, must bear the guilt of colonialism. Academics and activists, often one and the same, have taken hatred of modern Western/European society as manifest in North America to an entirely new level particularly via social media. Just a brief survey of tweets and “scholarly literature” from various professors and activists show their intellectual underpinnings. The terms “white settler colonialism” (a term akin to white supremacism) , race shifting (wherein Métis people who do not meet a certain standard are accused of cultural appropriation), lateral violence (violence between members of minority groups which activists and academics claim is the fault of the colonialist white majority: a key term in the lexicon of present-day victimology), and cultural appropriation (accusations of which come with tedious moralistic lecturing about what constitutes appropriate artwork and who is legitimately indigenous.) This rhetoric, by the way is just a sampling of the extreme views of people who spend a lot time begging for money, or being paid for their calumnies by the universities (ie, your taxes) they are so privileged to work for. Instead of activists, perhaps we should start calling them ‘begstivists.”

Because the honorable Indigenous dead can no longer defend Turtle Island, people responsible for this rhetoric have taken it upon themselves to do it for them by speaking in their names. That means: demands for reparations, calls for the end of cattle and the return of bison, Marxist critiques of land ownership, Stalin-esque cultural control that relies on defaming their ‘enemies’ with terms like racist and Nazi, publicly castigating anyone who challenges their extreme views and many other tactics, much like the radical leftists, AntiFa.

How different are these people from Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill in their appropriation of Native American identity? For certain elements of society, the dead become the radical ventriloquist’s dummy, having never had any life worth discussing of their own ­— that too due to the “ongoing colonization” of Indigenous lands. This is another term in the language they use. What does ongoing colonization even mean? Actually, it means nothing. It’s word salad made up by people whose lives are so meaningless they have to appropriate the most helpless people we know of, the dead, to achieve their ends. No one should be supporting them or engaging with them.

Speaking for the dead is no one’s privilege. We can elucidate the lives of people who lived in the past, we can uncover details about their lives and cultures. We can make educated guesses about what they thought and dreamed for, their motivations and fears. But all too often people move quickly way beyond that to a place of absurdity, in which the dead are against fracking, and are responsible for the only wisdom that ever mattered. It is actually one of the most cynical ploys I can think of: living off public or charitable funds while claiming, implicitly, to speak for the dead with vitriolic language aimed at tearing down the country you live in. I pray that the dead may rest in peace and if they are abroad this season, that they haunt the hell out of people taking their names in vain.

5 comments

  1. Oh dear. Elizabeth Warren. Considered rationally, it’s a family story that applies to millions of people, white, black, native in North and South America. There have been many passings of people from one group to another. The primary reason the “stories” are so storyful is that many of those passings were extremely painful transitions, not done willingly and may have included rape, kidnapping and general mayhem. Many were done under cultural pressure, as in Warren’s case. Her father’s family strongly disapproved of her mother’s family because there was some rumor/story/whispered scandal that included Native presence in the bloodline. No paper, no “proof”, nothing substantial, just stories. Warren herself is not seeking tribal membership. Neither are most people who have an African, Indian, Asian ancestor no one will speak of openly, or who find such an ancestor by surprise in a DNA event.

    There was a PBS story recently [my apologies for not having specifics] about a woman who sent her DNA off for ancestor discovery. What she found was that her mother had passed for white for her entire life by simply never, ever, EVER, talking about her birth family. Can you imagine the painful daily chore and steely resolve that must have been? Imagine the stilted, tortuous conversations to keep the facts hidden. That is not a story of joyful, nostalgic loving memories of any kind.

    Yes, it’s entirely possible people make stuff up about their “Indian ancestors”, but those who don’t aren’t lying or delusional. Those who take on the search are mostly not looking for tribal memberships or cultural contact. They’re trying to find out what happened, why it happened, has the pain of transition been alleviated by time? Or not.

    As for Elizabeth Warren: “During a January 2019 public appearance in Sioux City, Iowa, Warren was asked by an attendee, “Why did you undergo the DNA testing…?” Warren responded in part, “I am not a person of color; I am not a citizen of a tribe. Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes, and only tribes, determine tribal citizenship, and I respect that difference.”[146] She later reached out to leadership of the Cherokee Nation to apologize “for furthering confusion over issues of tribal sovereignty and citizenship and for any harm her announcement caused”. Cherokee Nation executive director of communications Julie Hubbard said that Warren understands “that being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws not through DNA tests.” Donald Trump told her he’d give her a million dollars if she took a DNA test and it showed native ancestry. She did, it did, he didn’t.

    • Thank you for your comment Emily. Nice to hear from you. While Elizabeth Warren was only a reference point, I’ll admit she remains a point of contention. I’ll also give you that she has made attempts to clarify her public statements. The reality is though she will never live it down, especially since she has spent her public lecturing people about ethical behavior and clearly used this purported ancestry to her advantage.

      Be that as may, I also want to be clear that this article is in no way a critique of people whose claim or misunderstand their sometimes ambigous indigenous amcestry. I am much more concerned with the many activists who have coopted the status of having letters after one’s name to create an aura of gravitas, authority, and unique authenticity when speaking of identity issues is a misuse of academic freedom and weakens respect for the institution. In fact ot makes a mockery of it.

      I’d like to invite you to write for Voyageur Heritage sometime! You have a lot of good points and write really well.

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