For the Children Lost and Yet to Come: Restitution and the Indigenous Genocide

By Philippe Blouin

Emergent Conversation 15

This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

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“Candlelight Vigil Marks National Day For Truth And Reconciliation In Calgary.” A woman holds a candle and a placard with words “We Are Still Here,” during a candlelight vigil at the residential school memorial on the steps of Calgary City Hall, on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to honor the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. On Thursday, 30 September 2021, in Fort Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

It could be said that all their work, all their sweating and all their trade comes back almost solely to doing honour to the dead.

—French Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau about the Rotinonhsión:ni (1977 [1724], 230).

Time and again ethnographic fieldwork requires blithely putting up with mockery. Although blithe acceptance often serves to disguise anthropologists’ thirst for data as inoffensive, ludicrous goofiness, some taunts can compel researchers, rather than their “informants,” to yield up their secrets. One such remark from an Anishinaabe friend once left me baffled. I was helping to build a wigwam for a land-based language and culture camp in La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, a five-hour drive north from Montreal, and as she saw me struggling to dig a hole for a pole, she tried to cheer me up: “Come on, keep digging! You’ll find the bones of your ancestors!” It was genuinely funny, and I joined in the laughter. But it obviously hinted at the other darker side of the coin: the violence and dehumanization to which French settlers consistently subjected Anishinaabe people throughout history. As it got dark and we sat by the fire, my friend’s mother, a respected kokum whose traditional knowledge is invaluable to her community, started speaking with me in French. When I asked her where she learned it, she told me that she had attended a French Catholic Residential as a child and recounted all the different forms of physical and psychological abuse she experienced there.

This night was in 2018, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had just coined the term “cultural genocide” to describe how the Residential school system, in place between the 1870s and the 1990s, endeavored to “kill the Indian in the child” by separating Indigenous children from their parents, and punishing them for speaking their language and practicing their culture.[1] Yet survivors had long described these schools as not merely culturally genocidal, but as outright concentration camps, intentionally murdering native children, whose bodies were allegedly buried close by. Dismissed as hearsay, the truth of genocide plain and simple became irrefutable in June 2021, when a grassroots Indigenous team uncovered 215 unmarked graves next to a Residential school in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory (Kamloops, British Columbia), launching a nationwide search for other mass graves. As of September 2021, the remains of 1,308 Indigenous children had been discovered in five different sites; and with at least 139 official residential school facilities that remain to be investigated, we can expect that the total count will be staggering. By relaying Indigenous conceptions of restorative justice, this article seeks to provide settlers with an understanding of restitution that meets the scope and scale of the extermination.

When truth is “not so much a secret as a public secret,” Taussig (1999) recommends pondering these words from Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose body was itself tossed in an unmarked fosa comunal near the French border of fascist Spain in 1940: “Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it” (2). If only survivors can determine the face of justice, the burden of repair is on the perpetrators alone. As Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott (2021) reminds us, the genocide was conducted “on behalf of every non-Indigenous family who proudly calls themselves Canadians,” with the result that “this entire country is haunted by the violence.” This is not a situation where settlers could simply wish they were dead in their victims’ stead. According to Avery F. Gordon (2008), “to be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects,” thus deactivating the reversibility of the “If you were me and I were you” logic (190). The genocide could not have gone the other way: it targeted the unconvertible minds and bodies of the original peoples alone. I argue that this has been the case not only because Indigenous peoples have consistently stood in the way of the colonial state, but because their ways of living necessarily entail its destitution. And this is the case because Indigenous “constitutions” are themselves based on restituting power to the people yet to come, in such a way that destitution, instead of a vanishing moment giving way to new constituent powers, is the constituent power itself.

In the wake of the findings, prime minister Trudeau could no longer avoid using the word genocide, and he did.[3] Yet he immediately proceeded to appoint an Inuit woman, Mary Simon, as the new Governor General representing the Queen, and announced premature elections where unmarked graves were poised to not be mentioned. Refacing colonial institutions with Indigenous figures while no individual whatsoever was prosecuted is the same as propagating institutional land acknowledgements while the continent and its resources stay under the control of the occupier. The public secret is destroyed by way of being partially shown, as if it had been “metaphorically” resolved. A closer look suggests that acknowledging Indigenous “contributions” to colonial institutions often serves the interests of the latter, thus bestowed with a legitimacy siphoned from their historical victims. Kanien’kehá:ka scholar Kaitlin Debicki (2021) notes that “decolonization has come to be used as a metaphor for institutional renewal rather than removal” (263). Abandoning hopes that symbolic reconciliation may precede material restitution requires doing away with metaphorical understandings of decolonial repair. And to demetaphorize decolonization, as Tuck and Yang (2012) suggest, means “relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples” (36). Unmetaphorically redeeming the past thus requires restituting futurity to the Indigenous present, by dismantling the colonial present established through  genocide.

The tendency to see Indigenous thought as unrealistic, spiritualist metaphors is deeply rooted in colonial perception, dating back to early colonists’ interpretation of Indigenous oratory imagery as “based upon the insufficiency of abstract words in their languages and intellectual traditions,” to quote Deborah Doxtator (1996, 63). According to this Kanien’kehá:ka historian,  to be considered as metaphors, Indigenous verbal images must previously be extracted from the other sets of figures they related to. Within the Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy for instance, family-based terminologies “incorporate and repeat themselves in the organization of clans and larger and larger groups of people such as moieties, nations and the Confederacy of nations.”[6] This centripetal and centrifugal “analogic flow” of kinship relates relations to other relations in such a way that their continuity exceeds metaphorical delimitation, thus presenting “ideas and concepts organically, not as linear segmented arguments” (Doxtater 1996, 63 That this organic continuity exceeds metaphor is what early colonial diplomats had such difficulty understanding when they insisted that their Indigenous allies used the term “Father” when addressing European monarchs, failing to understand that fatherhood did not imply coercive authority, but rather a responsibility to distribute wealth (Havard 2001, 30). Understanding this would have required to associate Indigenous familial terminology not only with larger concentric sociopolitical circles, but with animal and cosmological entities, as the male principle, at least for Rotinonhsión:ni peoples, is socially associated with departing to the forest for war and hunting, and cosmologically associated with celestial bodies such as the sun and the stars, procuring light and warmth to a fundamentally feminine Mother Earth, her plant daughter, and the women in charge of decisions within the village clearing.[8]

The Two Row Wampum is one of the oldest treaty relationships between the Onkwehonweh original people of Turtle Island North America and European immigrants. According to Rotinonhsión:ni oral tradition, the Two Row Wampum would have been exchanged with the first Dutch settlers, in the early 17th Century. By Nativemedia. CC BY SA 4.0.

But if this analogic flow of kinship is continuous and holistic, it still proceeds and works through distinctions and contrasts. Far from flattening differences, the multiplication of analogies widens the basis for their distinction. By approaching these unbound analogous distinctions as piecemeal metaphors, colonizers both ignored their outer continuity and their inner discontinuity, which allow Indigenous cosmopolitical to endure “that distinct groups remain distinct and yet have some basis for unity and connection among them into a larger spatial and social unit” (Doxtater 1996, 63). A perfect illustration of this can be found in the Rotinonhsión:ni protocol for relationships with settlers: the Tehiohate (Two Row Wampum). Rotinonhsión:ni oral tradition dates this wampum belt of white and purple shells or glass beads back to an early seventeenth-century agreement with Dutch settlers, which was later expanded to the French and English peoples. It displays two purple rows on a white background, symbolizing a river where the original peoples’ canoe and the settlers’ ship are said to sail side by side, keeping their culture and ways of life within their own vessel. As an alliance belt, it suggests that parties can only move in the same direction if they remain parallel, and refrain from crossing each other’s path. Kanien’kehá:ka elders have told me that this paradoxical conception of alliance through separation not only applies to relationships with settlers, but between any and all social groups, including non-human nations, ensuring their mutual respect in diplomacy.

With its intricate system of checks and balances, which allegedly inspired Benjamin Franklin’s first draft of the Constitution of the United States (Grinde and Johansen 1991), the precolonial “constitution” of the Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy, the Kaianerekó:wa, displays a similar care for respecting the mutual autonomy and balancing power between clans and nations as the Two Row Wampum provides for settler nations. If the Kaianerekó:wa provides in this respect a prime example of a “destituent constitution,” European colonizers tended to view alliance as the subsumption of the weaker element into the stronger power. In this respect, institutional refacing and acknowledgement policies only seem to transgress the Two Row Wampum the other way round, adding cultural appropriation to failed genocidal attempts at assimilating Indigenous peoples into the European row.

Rotinonhsión:ni traditionalists often stress that the ethics embodied by the Two Row Wampum and the Kaianerekó:wa are unmetaphorical because they are grounded in empirical relations between natural beings, and refrain from positing a transcendental instance, be it spiritual (religion) or lay (law). In this sense, translating the Kaianerekó:wa as “Great Law of Peace” is obviously treacherous, as it rather appears to provide an ethical guideline for a way of living that makes law unnecessary.[9] However, metaphorical translations of Indigenous concepts may be unavoidable, as European languages may be structurally incapable of transporting the extensive network of relations between relations that compose the meaning for Indigenous symbolism, only being able to connect isolated bits with other isolated bits.

Applying the Two Row Wampum to the incommensurability of translation might mean that to non-Indigenous eyes all Indigenous ideas seem metaphorical. But from the native point of view, where “cultural empiricism” prevailed before the arrival of European religions, Debicki (2021) suggests that metaphors are rather perceived as metonymies (249). What does this mean? By contrast with metaphors, which extract and compare specific qualities between material beings, metonymies appear once analogies are multiplied to the point of encompassing the whole, comprising “all relations.” Given their both continuous and contrasted, holistic and plural nature, Debicki explains that metonymies relate contiguous elements in such a way that “neither one is allowed to completely depart from the other as they are tied together but remain autonomous” (253). The Two Row Wampum manifestly epitomize this “metonymic diplomacy;” metonymically related beings are allies, moving in the same direction by remaining separate. To demetaphorize decolonization, one can think of the most common example of a metonym: to “drink a cup” or to “eat a dish,” where the container is a shortcut to the contained. If decolonization points to the container (the destitution of settler colonization), its real significance lies in all the relations it contains (the restitution of the unsettled).

All the relations contained within the decolonial metonymy are empirical. They are not only grounded: they are in and of the ground. To get at the gist of what decolonial destitution requires to restitute, and to get back to the horrible findings under residential school grounds, we can consider the Indigenous entities which settler colonial epistemology is the least likely to acknowledge as empirical: “ghosts” or “spirits.” What does it mean to take as metonymies, rather than metaphors, the idea that Canada is a haunted cemetery, where the restless spirits of lost children yearn to be discovered in the ground, watched over by the ancestors’ spirits?

Following the accidental discovery of ancient Indigenous bones near Toronto in 2005 during excavations for road work, which ended up obstructing the environmentally harmful development project, Victoria Freeman (2011) was repeatedly told by Indigenous activists that “bones come up for a reason” (223). Similarly, when the children rumored to be buried near residential schools were finally discovered, Kanien’kehá:ka writer Kahentinetha (2021a) concluded that Mother Earth had “pushed our dead children to the surface,” as a testimony to the fact that “Creation is avenging the genocide.”  She then explained that the Earth uncovered her children in response to what had been the underlying intention of residential schools: to thoroughly depopulate Indigenous territories to grab their lands and resources. This reading is supported by a famous quote from Duncan Campbell Scott (1919), who ran the residential school system at its peak, between 1913 and 1932: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem […].  Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department” (13). In 1889, Alexander Sutherland, the Superintendent of the Methodist church, put it even more bluntly: “Make the savage a Christian and he will settle peacefully on reserves. Teach him the scriptures and he will give up his claim to the land that we require” (quoted in Annett 2010, 183). To grab Indigenous lands, Indigenous minds—and in case of failure, their bodies—had to be erased.

Save for the land confiscated for the James Bay hydroelectric complex and eleven treaties signed with handpicked Prairie “chiefs” between 1871 and 1921, Canada has yet to prove it has legal title to its own land, capital and metropolises included. The “right of conquest” argument, which courts sometimes resort to, is rather shaky given that Indigenous peoples were never defeated in a duly declared war, being rather allies of the British. This leaves Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Bull, Inter Caetera, which established the “Doctrine of Discovery” by giving Spain and Portugal the right to annex any territory not already controlled by a Christian monarch, as the sole justification left for settler colonial occupation. Yet there was a grain of truth in the Pope’s idea that Indigenous peoples could not be considered as land “owners” in the Christian, regalian sense of the term. And for the same reason that they could not own the land, they could not sell it either. First of all, a treaty signed by a “chief” amounts to nothing unless he is followed by his people—a coercive leverage which was logistically difficult to enforce without state infrastructure, and which destituent constitutions like the Kaianerekó:wa’s consistently worked to annul. On the other hand, as Kanien’keha:ka elder Tekarontakeh says, “As the Earth is the original people’s mother, one cannot sell his mother or cut her into pieces.” For her part, Kahentinetha (2021b) explains that the Kanien’keha:ka people view the land as a trust kept for the children “yet to come” (2021b). The real “owners” of the land are the Tahatikonhsontóntie, literally “the coming faces which are still in the ground”, meaning the future generations still within Mother Earth’s womb. The Earth is the metonymic crucible for the future generations, nourished by the ancestors, and protected by the living—the women first. As the land is passed on from the ancestors to those still to come, humans lose their yoke over it as soon they are born, thence resorting to care for the earth’s futurity. Caring for the future may be a name for tradition.

Somewhere between the spirits of past ancestors and those of the babies yet to come are trapped the children murdered by colonial churches and states. Their souls, kept both from living and dying, deprived not only of a proper burial, but of their very names, were denied the most basic respect for the dead which gave birth to human culture. When ancestors “come up with a reason”, it is often to assist the living in protecting the land for those to come. This is what happened in 1990, when the expansion of a golf course over an ancestral cemetery in the pines of Kanehsatake triggered a 78-day armed standoff between the Mohawk Warrior Society and the Canadian Army, suddenly bringing Indigenous issues to the forefront of public attention. Now that Mother Earth pushes her lost children to the surface, she is asking something of us: at the bare minimum, to find them all, and to see that they get a proper burial, so that they can become ancestors in turn. And specifically of the historical settlers of North America, English or French like me, she reclaims to restitute all land-grabbed power and wealth to their rightful non-owners, forever yet to come. Pending this rematriation, the relevance of our presence here can be reassessed, if we finally resolve to abide by the protocol which Indigenous people devised to protect their mother from us. The Two Row Wampum’s condition for settlers sojourning here was that they would remain on their ship, keeping themselves at bay, on the waters where they would leave no trace. Rather than a metaphorical taunt, the Two Row Wampum’s last extremity—asking settlers to board their ship along with all their language, culture, and infrastructure, and sail back to Europe—now ought to be considered as a metonymical request to release the land, to let Mother Earth replenish. The only way to repair the genocide is to restitute “every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove” to the “invisible dead” which Chief Seattle prophesized would go on haunting the White Men of tomorrow.

Philippe Blouin is a PhD candidate in anthropology at McGill University. He currently studies Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) political philosophy, focusing on the teachings of the Tehiohate (Two Row Wampum) to build decolonial alliances. He has published essays in Liaisons and Stasis, and has edited the forthcoming oral history book The Mohawk Warrior Society: a Handbook on Sovereignty and Survival.


[1] The phrase “kill the Indian in the child” has been attributed to Duncan Campbell Scott, perhaps mistakenly, who ran the residential school system from 1913-1932 (Abley 2014). It has also been attributed to the American Army Lieutenant Colonel Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879 (Churchill 2004).  Bryanne Young (2015) has explored how this chilling phrase formed the ethos of residential schools in Canada.

[2] As of November 2021, 182 graves were found in Cranbrook, B.C. (Ktunaxa Nation), 160 on Penelakut Island, B.C. (Penelakut Nation), and no less than 751 in Marieval, Saskatchewan (Cowessess Nation). The 139 Residential schools officially recognized by the Canadian government do not include similar facilities that worked without federal funding, Indian Day Schools, nor the even higher number of similar schools in the United States, whose government announced eventual digs—none of which have started yet.

[3] This admission exposed the state of Canada to prosecution for crimes against humanity before the International Court of Justice. The Canadian government also recognized the authority of First Nations (that is, federal government-imposed elected Band Councils) in conducting further investigations.

[4] Mik’maq lawyer and Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University Pam Palmater regretted that during the 2021 elections the headline coverage of unmarked graves had “totally been pushed to the wayside” (Somos 2021). Palmater also pointed out that the last Canadian election had a similar pattern, as it immediately followed the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which had found Canada guilty of genocide.

[5] For the pitfalls of recognition, see Coulthard (2014). Also noteworthy is the fact that Kanien’ké:ha language contains no word for apologies, but rather says Enhskerihwakwatá:ko,“I will make it right.”

[6] The Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy, often spelled Haudenosaunee in Seneca language, and also called the Iroquois or Five (and later Six) Nations, comprises the Kanien’ke:haka (Mohawk) nation, as well as the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations (and from 1744 onwards, the Tuscarora nation). It was the largest political, cultural, and military confederacy in the Northeast of the continent when the Europeans arrived, and well into the nineteenth Century.

[7] On “analogic flow” of kinship, see Wagner (1977). On how relations relate to other relations, see Strathern (2014).

[8] Cultivated plans like corn are the “younger sisters,” while wild plants like strawberries are “older sisters,” because they can take care of themselves.

[9] Other translations include “Great Binding Law” or simply “Great Peace.” Because the Kaianerekó:wa represents less a fixed political structure than a “creative ideology”, an ethics or a “state of mind.” Kanien’keha:ka scholar Christopher Jocks (1998: 224) proposes the translation “Great Goodness”, as the root –ianer  means “to be good, noble”, and the suffix –kowa, “great.” This constitutes a living example of how Agamben’s (2014) suggestion that “only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” can apply to cultures as wholes (72).

[10] A later, properly British legal justification of colonial property stemmed from John Locke’s doctrine of “improvement.” Provided that each man possesses his own body, John Locke stated that “whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Zimmer 2015, 142-44).

[11] This etymological explanation was provided by Kanien’kehá:ka elder Tekarontakeh, whose knowledge of this language is recognized throughout the Rotinonhsión:ni Confederacy. All indigenous terms in this texts emerged from work Tekarontakeh, Karonhiio Delaronde and I have done on a glossary of Kanien’kehá:ka concepts which which will be included in the forthcoming book The Mohawk Warrior Society. Autohistory of the Rotisken’rhakéhte, published by PM Press.

[12] In his essay on “The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul,” Tuscarora anthropologist J.N.B. Hewitt (1895) explained that the Rotinonhsión:ni considered that dead infants did not have “the strength of body and limb requisite to make the long and trying journey to the land of souls”, and thus remained “in the country where they have their own village” (109). These young ghosts were considered inoffensive, except for making noises as “they wander hunting birds and pursuing small game in the fields.” But the souls of “those who have died unnatural, suicidal, or violent death” were held to be much more dangerous.

[13] Kahentinetha (2021c) quotes one of the many extant versions of this 1854 speech by Susquamish Chief Seattle: “Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.” Chief Seattle is also credited with the famous saying “the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

Works Cited

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Debicki, Kaitlin. 2021. “Sagoyewatha and Metonymic Being.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 33(2):  249-66.

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Kahentinetha. 2021a. “Trudeau Calls for More Genocide.” Mohawk Nation News. August 17, 2021. Accessed March 28, 2022:

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Kahentinetha. 2021c. “Criminally Insane McGill University.” Mohawk Nation News. July 26, 2021. Accessed March 28, 2022:

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Young, Bryanne. 2015. “‘Killing the Indian in the Child’: Death, Cruelty, and Subject-formation in the Canadian Indian Residential School System.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 48(4):  63-76.

Zimmer, Zac. 2015. “The Enclosure of the Nomos. Appropriation and Conquest in the New World.” In The Anomie of the Earth, edited by F. Luisetti, J. Pickels, and W. Kaiser, pp. 137-59.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.





































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