I have been asked the question many times over the course of my research and writing: “Why Riel?” The a/effect of answering the question provides me with the opportunity to consider my position within the work. One answer could be that as I happened upon the torrent of dehumanizing representations of Riel in the nineteenth century press, I also realized that a critical analysis addressing the relationship between the trial and the media was lacking in scholarship and thus necessary. Another answer could be that additional work needed to done within the context of Canada’s nineteenth century media and its representation of Aboriginal identities; moreover, how do these early representations inform the present day understandings of indigenous sovereignties, histories and stories? It could be that late one night at a library’s microfiche bay, I realized that something was not quite right when I read the Riel trial coverage in the 1885 newspapers. The answer could also be that I wanted to better understand how the mechanics of racism operate and figure out how the stereotyped matrix is configured and then dispensed into zones of intelligibility. All these responses would indeed be accurate; yet, these answers do not really resolve why I have not been able to let Riel go.
What I have come to learn over the years, and in fact what I am still learning, is that much of what draws me to the subject of Riel and Métis sovereignty has much to do with my own histories. Although I am not from Aboriginal descent, my corporeal and psychic being is a product of the colonial project. My father was Dutch; my mother was Indonesian. While not plunging the plumb line too deep into my own complex historical well (this work will be left for another time), what lies at the core of my affinity to Riel’s history is my mother. As a half-caste Indonesian-Dutch woman, she was born into the Dutch colonized archipelago where she survived a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia during WWII. Her histories similar to those histories of thousands of girls and women, who endured the violence of war and subsequent displacement, exile and lose of identity and geography, has remained largely undocumented. From the age of ten until she was fourteen my mother was a prisoner in the camp along with my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my tanta. One of my tantas was born in the camp. When the war ended they were further displaced into a refugee camp in Singapore before being forced to the Netherlands and into exile. My mother and her sisters were told never to speak of their origin, the camp, their histories, and their mixed race. Silenced was the history of my mother whose hair was cut and her name changed to “Jimmy” along with her gender at the age of ten. She lived in the camp as a boy (a common mother’s trick during war to save their daughters from being taken by soldiers as “comfort women”). The “comfort woman” euphemism of war facilitated the rape, exploitation, and the torture and murder of young girls. Silenced was my grandmother’s smuggling of cigarettes out of the camp at night for medicine to try to save the malnutritioned, sick and dying girls and women, one of which was her own mother, my great grandmother. Silenced was the sexual violence, my grandmother giving birth to a daughter in the camp, the racial hierarchies in all-women’s camps that relegated the hybridity of Indonesian-Dutch women to exclusion and violence. Silenced were these histories and countless others under the guise of assimilation and shame. “We are now Dutch,” my mother was told. But my mother knew she wasn’t really Dutch. She didn’t want to be Dutch. And in her bones she would never belong – anywhere; her hybridity, her half-breededness, her impurity would haunt her and, so it seems, would haunt her daughter. My mother always felt she lost her home, her land, her self. When she eventually arrived in Canada, she was lost.
I am able to pass as white, yet beneath my skin, just under the surface I am an Indonesian-Dutch hybrid who is determined to keep categories, whatever they may be, complicated and unfixed, and always with unstable histories. Complicated histories. Sarah Stillman explains that it is the obligation of scholars to “pursue the unknown ghosts and recognize the need for proactive digging to recover stories about those deemed ‘disposable’; and valuing the structural integrity, details, and delicacy of each individual story you unearth” (500). Perhaps it was the words in Riel’s testimony: “But justice demands that we honor our mothers as well our fathers. Why should we care to what degree exactly of mixture we possess European blood and Indian blood?” Riel’s words struck a chord when defining his place, his identity, and his sovereignty; perhaps, what struck a deeper chord was the government’s negation of his rights and the denial of his belonging. If I do not identify as mixed raced I negate my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and tantas’ histories; I ignore the colonial violence they lived; I absolve the colonizer, and I devalue their daily acts of resistance. I erase their strength. I enable silence. Assimilation is amnesia’s handmaiden. I am privileged to be stained by my father’s whiteness; yet, I am also privileged to be haunted by the hybrid ghosts who never sleep, who speak to me, who toss and turn and at times beat their fists beneath the floorboards of my skin and demand that their histories are spoken. So, here I return to my initial question: why Riel? Truthfully, I am still not exactly certain. What I do know is that somewhere within the landscape of Riel’s and Métis histories I recognize specters that continue to haunt me; and their need to be resurrected, to speak, to be recognized, to refuse the refusal of their sovereignty and to do the work to set it right. There is indeed work for the living to do.