Facing Our History – The North American Gael

Facing Our History is a collective effort to examine the role of the Highlander, the Scottish Gael, in the colonial and post-Independance history of North America.  The last half century has seen a re-thinking of North American history in both academia and the general public as a result of efforts to address historical and modern day injustices.  In the past year this process has entered a heightened phase in response to even more increased recognition of a range of systemic injustices.  Seeing open white supremacist marches, such as in Charlottesville, Virginia; armed militias; and police shootings in Black communities have spurred more and more people to struggle to better understand the society in which we live.  This program is intended to (1) grapple with and understand the complex impacts of colonialism and imperialism on the Gaelic homelands, on the Gaelic experience of immigration and exile in the North American colonies, and in the societies that grew from those colonial foundations, (2) explore the responses of Scottish Gaelic people to colonization and empire, and (3) identify how we take actions that contribute to a future premised on justice.

Many questions face us in this process: How did English colonialism and imperialism re-shape the Gaelic world?  How did that same colonialism result in us being here in North America? How did it re-shape Gaelic psychology and identity? How did it condition our relationships with Indigenous peoples as well as other non-Indigenous populations?  How did it shape the relationship of the Gaelic communities to the institution of slavery and the Black experience?
How did the Gael fit into the racial-ethnic hegemony that resulted from the development of modernity and capitalism upon that foundation of colonialism?
What have been the consequences of that process? 

Moving beyond a critical understanding of our history and the contemporary conditions of settler colonialism is the crux of the matter: How can the Gaelic tradition contribute to a different future? 

The Indigenous activist and scholar Nick Estes speculates in his book, Our History is the Future: “Perhaps the answers lie within the kinship relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and the lands we both inhabit.”  How can this program contribute to that possibility?

What will we do?

Our project does not stand alone in this endeavor:  

  • The Scottish Gaelic scholar Michael Newton has written extensively on the subject, and through his Hidden Glen Folk School offers courses that dig into Scottish Gaelic heritage and experience of colonialism and immigration.  
  • In Cape Breton, a cultural symposium called Sharing Our Paths brought together Mi’kmaq and Gaelic-speaking communities to explore their histories and what they share in common. 
  • Baile nan Gàidheal | Highland Village, located in Iona, Cape Breton Island states on their website that they are “located in Unama’ki, the traditional homeland of the Mi’kmaw people.”  Baile nan Gàidheal is developing an outdoor interpretive exhibit to introduce its visitors to the Mi’kmaw peoples and their story, and are currently hiring a Mi’kmaq Research Associate intern.  Baile nan Gàidheal also promotes on its website the Cultural Journeys program of Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world.

The first step in our project is an online series of conversations starting in Spring 2021.  This forum will feature people doing groundbreaking work that allow us to explore this subject and to build a dialogue within the Scottish Gaelic community, between that community and Indigenous communities, and with Black, Latinx, and other People of Color.  We will review publications and speak with the authors.  We will explore aspects of the Gaelic tradition that help us develop an expanded sense of kinship.  We will foster exchanges between Indigenous activists, Gaelic activists, Black activists, and others. We will record and disseminate the sessions. And we will be open to any avenues that the exploration takes us down.

Why are we doing this?

There is inherent in this project the sense that if we better understand our own Scottish Gaelic history and our own experience of oppression and colonization, and the responses of our ancestors to those conditions, we can not only revitalize our own language and culture but be better allies with those who suffered from the same process. Many scholars have stressed that the English colonization of the Highlands and of Ireland provided a model for the colonization of North America. Newton writes that: 

“ . . . the exercise of English empire-building began in the medieval British Isles with the colonization and disenfranchisement of Celtic peoples. The beliefs, structures, and practices developed in this colonial enterprise were transferred to North America and developed further into the forms of pathological power that established a racial-ethnic hegemony that absorbed many immigrant groups.”

Many of the same practices used in the British North American colonies and in the post-colonial United States expansion can be seen in Ireland and Scottish Gaeldom: erosion of language and cultural practices, breaking up of traditional economies, transforming the relationship to land to that of private property, extracting resources from the land, the elimination of political and cultural sovereignty, and the creation of the idea of the dominated as an inferior people.

Many of our ancestors arrived in North America as the result of warfare aimed at dominating and exploiting Gaelic lands and culture.  Some came through organized migrations, leaving their homelands because political and economic conditions made their lives at home untenable. Others found themselves on these shores through sentences of transportation or indenture.  Others fled the aftermath of war with its attendant horrors. Others fled 17th and 18th century settler-colonialism in the decades after large areas of the Gaelic world were open to English-speaking settlers, most dramatically the plantation of Ulster.  Others arrived here as a result of the 18th century Clearances.  Some arrived in large migrations, others as individuals or families, and yet others settled after military service.  In short, many of our families arrived as victims of colonialism and imperialism, and the social and economic systems that emerged from colonialism.  That experience of dispossession and disenfranchisement left an enduring trauma on the psychology of the Gael. Nor was that trauma only inflicted by invaders. The social class of a Gael determined alot as to how heavy a load one bore from colonization and oppression. Being cleared from your land by your own leaders was a particularly hard blow. The assimiliation of Gaelic elites to British imperial interests had its impact on the poor and working Gael, and conditioned our interactions with Indigenous people and others.

The intersecting structure of settler-native-slave lay at the base of North American society. The settler population was further divided along class lines, reinforced by a racial-ethnic hegemony. The title of Colin Calloway’s book. White People, Indians, and Highlanders, drawn from a statement by the British general James Oglethorpe, in which he described the military force he was raising in southern Georgia, reminds us that not all people now considered white were always considered white.

Like most immigrant peoples, once the Scottish Gael was here, they were faced with how to survive.  Again, like other immigrant peoples, some chose a path of continued resistance to the colonial enterprise and to the oppression of other peoples.  Others chose the road of assimilating to the dominant society.  Both narratives exist in our history.  Whichever path our ancestors took, most of us over time became participants in and beneficiaries of the social and economic system that had at one time victimized us. Even if the rewards of assimilation in wealth, power, and privilege for individuals or families turned out to be great, this has not been without its consequences to the Gaelic people, including loss of language, community, and culture; and the historic and psychological impacts of moving from oppressed to oppressor, from colonized to colonizer, or at least the beneficiaries of oppression. 

Cautions Along the Way

As we enter this journey of Facing Our History, we will, through developing a fresh understanding of our own history and of the history of colonization, and setting aside established settler histories, naturally seek to find ways to redress the injustices commited through colonization, and modernity and capitalism that emerged with and from it, simultaneously reimagining and revitalizing our own heritage. In the course of that we will certainly find ourselves squarely within the framework that has come to be called decolonization. We must remember that developing a critical analysis is only part of the journey. Though it has gained in popularity in recent years, the term, decolonization, is not so new. Back in 1963, we were told by Frantz Fanon, the author of the classic, The Wretched of the Earth, that decolonizing the mind is just the first step, not the only step. The constitutional scholar, Jacobus tenBroek, was fond of saying, in different words at different times, “Movements without principles are dangerous – they shouldn’t exist. But principles without movements are just pointless.” Learning and teaching something new can be so powerful it feels like it’s making change, but it’s not. The process we undertake is not about shame and blame. Nor is the important thing relieving ourselves of guilt or responsibility. In their 2012 paper, Decolonization is not a metaphor, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, cautioned against deploying the term ‘decolonization’ as a metaphor that can be applied to social justice projects, for things we want to do to improve our societies and schools, that do not result in changes in land distribution, use, and especially relationships. In the end, action that sets things to rights is what’s important.

So, why is this important?  

The Gaelic concept of time is complex, but what it is not is linear.  To exempt ourselves from responsibility from the past is a linear way of thinking, a settler-colonial way of thinking. To think like a Gael, we can understand that we remain impacted by that past, but that we can shape an alternative future through developing a new understanding of the past.  A Gaelic world view is reflected in the Gaelic language, including, and importantly so, land, and a sense of belonging to a place.  Landscape and that sense of belonging to a place and to a people inform Gaelic identity.  That link was brutally broken through colonialism.  Most of us have been in North America for many generations, and we developed a sense of identity in this place.  Still, that sense of belonging has its limits. No matter how many generations have been buried in the soil here, we still know that we are from somewhere else, and where we are now was land taken from someone else.  We are not indigenous to North America. Estes writes that: “Peace on stolen land is genocide.”

None of us escape the culture of the society in which we live or the demands of the times in which we live.  In July 1980, Indigenous activist John Trudell, speaking at the International Survival Gathering on a South Dakota prairie said:  “We must become of a resistance consciousness. We must say that, “We will not allow you to smash us, even if it means that we have to deal with that part of you that you planted in me . . . “

Empire, colonialism, racism, and class privilege are political constructions; that is to say constructions created by people and not natural developments.  Facing our History includes facing how we as individuals and cultures have been shaped by colonialism, post-colonialism, capitalism, and racism, and deciding which narrative in our history we will feed, the assimilating narrative, or the resistance and liberating narrative; the narrative that renews the connection between land, people, and all life forms, or the narrative that exploits the land.  

Usually depicted as a stump putting out new shoots, the tree that has been savaged but grows green again has a long history in Gaelic lore, and even ended up as the crest of some clans. The Tree of Peace, Chraobh na Sìthe, has an even longer history in Gaelic tradition. These ideas have a counterpart here in North America. The Oglala prophet Nicholas Black Elk spoke of the need for people to unite to nourish back to health the tree of life so that it can bloom again.

Indigenous Gaelic knowledge and our experiences have something to offer, and we have much to learn from the Indigenous peoples of North America, and from other communities of color.  In the poem, An Tobar (The Well), the Scottish Gaelic poet, Ruaraidh MacThomais, writes of a well now covered by grass at the end of a path now covered with bracken.  In this poem, an old woman tells him of the well and he seeks it out to bring her a drink of its clear water.  In a poetic sense, those of us involved in reclamation of the Gaelic language and culture, and through this forum series, are reopening wells and digging new ones as did the biblical Isaac, as did the poet in retrieving the water from the well. We clear the path of the bracken and the well of its covering of green.  And we are weeding the ground around the tree, breaking up the soil so that water can reach its roots, and nourishing it back to health so that it may grow green again, thus fulfilling the promise of the stump that grows green again and the need spoken of by Black Elk.

In doing so, we cannot avoid confronting our own “unbelonging” to the land.  Nick Estes, again in Our History is the Future, asks: “How can settler society, which possesses no fundamental ethical relationship to the land or its original people, imagine a future premised on justice?”  Trudell on that South Dakota prairie said: “Only by fulfilling our obligation to the earth can we fulfill our obligation to the people. Only by understanding our connection to the earth can we create a fair system that’s going to be good to the people.”

This, then, is a key question of this forum:  How do we Gaels in North America, through a new understanding of our past, water the tree so that it may bloom again and result in a sense of place and belonging that is life enhancing, and in so doing be allies in shaping a future premised on justice?

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