Indigenous and Muslim Perspectives on Colonization, Treaties, and Decolonization

By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

[Full length version of the speech that was presented on Thursday, February 17, 2022, as part of an event organized by Emmanuel College’s Centre for Religion and its Contexts, the Olive Tree Foundation, and Justice for All]

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Greetings of peace, in English. Salaamu ‘alaykum, in Arabic. Salut, in French. And Tanshi in Michif. I speak to you today as an indigenous person of Algonquin, Huron-Wendat, Mi’kmaq, Innu, Penobscot, Abenaki, and Nipissing ancestry. My indigenous ancestors mixed with my European ancestors, who came primarily from France. They were French. They were Acadians. They were Canadians. They were French Canadians. They were Quebeckers. And some of them were Irish. This fusion of indigenous and European cultures, primarily French, produced the Métis people. It’s called ethnogenesis, the creation of a new and distinct ethnic group with its own identity and consciousness.

Known historically as the Gens Libres, Bois-Brulés, Chicots, Half-Breeds, Mixed-Bloods, and Michif, they spread throughout North America. Half a million strong, we are found from sea to sea. We are who we are. We know who we are. We are proud of who we are. And nobody can tell us who we are or who we are not. According to Article 33 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity.” What is more, Article 9 establishes that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation.”

I speak to you today as both an indigenous person who holds traditional beliefs and observes traditional spiritual practices and as an observant Muslim, one who submits to the One, a proponent of Sophia perennis or perennial philosophy, defined as “a perspective in philosophy and spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown,” thereby bridging the local with the global in recognition of the universal.

When it comes to colonization, treaties, and decolonization, my perspectives are both Indigenous and Muslim. However, I am not here to talk about myself, my identity, my heritage, and my ancestry. I usually never mention it. It’s not something that is up for discussion or debate. I only do so in this context, to frame and contextualize my narrative. Having an identity is a fundamental human right. To deny a person their identity it to deny their humanity.

While there were thousands of indigenous tribes, peoples, and nations, with a myriad of religious beliefs, spiritual practices, and political organization, the indigenous people from the Eastern Woodlands share the Seven Grandfather Teachings in common: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth. Consequently, our word is our bond. We are expected to honor our treaties and, by and large, we have, unless we were compelled to do otherwise for reasons of desperation or self-preservation. The same can be said of most Muslims.

The Qur’an calls upon Muslims to abide by the covenants and treaties that they conclude with non-Muslims and to never violate them unless, and until, they are broken by the opposing party. The Qur’an commands Muslims to keep their promises, fulfill their oaths, and honor their treaties: “Fulfil the covenant of God and do not break the contract” (13:20), “Do not break oaths after their confirmation while you have made God, over you, a witness” (16:91), for verily, “[Success] is attained by those who honestly look after their trusts and covenants” (22:8). The Qur’an, however, warns against making treaties with those who “respect not the ties of kinship or of covenant” (9:8).

The Prophet Muhammad was adamant that Muslims had to respect their treaty obligations. He said that only a hypocrite broke his oath. “I do not renege on a covenant,” he asserted ( Abu Dawud, Nisa’i, Ibn Hayyan). Whenever he concluded a treaty, he would say: We fulfil the covenant for them, and we seek help from God against them” (Muslim). The Prophet concluded covenants with the idolaters of Medina, Mecca, and other regions. The Prophet concluded covenants with the Jews of Medina, the Yemen, Khaybar, and Maqna. He concluded covenants with the Samaritans of Palestine and the Zoroastrians of Persia. He concluded covenants with the Christians of Najran, Jerusalem, Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, the Sinai, and the world.

The Messenger of God prohibited Muslims from persecuting the Peoples of the Book: “Whoever oppresses a Jew or a Christian, I will testify against him the Day of Judgment” (Bukhari, Abu Dawud, Mawardi, Abu Nu’aym, Baladhuri, Jalabi) (Morrow, 2021: 97); “Observe scrupulously the protection accorded to me to non-Muslim subjects” (Suyuti; Morrow 2021: 98); “Whoever does injustice to a Jew or a Christian, decreases his right, burdens him for that which he cannot afford, or takes something from him unwittingly, I will raise a complaint against him on the Day of Judgment” (Abu Yusuf; Morrow 2021: 98).

The Messenger of God never violated a treaty. If the conflict with certain Jewish tribes of Medina is correct, and not a later construct used as a pretext to expel people, then it was the treacherous parties that broke the covenant and suffered the consequences. That entire incident is shrouded in doubt and remains the subject of historical debate. As for the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, it is well known and accepted that the Quraysh violated its terms. Treaties are not one-sided. It takes two to tango. If the idolaters did not wish to dance in peace, and preferred to make war, and raid, rob, and murder Muslims, then the Prophet Muhammad was not bound to uphold his end of the agreement.

While I will not give carte blanche to all Muslim leaders and individuals from all times and pretend that they were perfect, I will state unequivocally that all righteous, God-fearing Muslim rulers, strove to respect the treaties and covenants that the Prophet Muhammad concluded with the Peoples of the Book and that the best of them extended these protections to people of all faith and of no faith. The Jews, the Christians, the Samaritans, and the Zoroastrians were protected as Peoples of the Book or Ahl al-Kitab whereas the Hindus, the Buddhists, and other groups were treated as Ahl al-Dhimmah, the People of Protection, namely, citizens and subjects entitled to life and liberty.

This was the case with the Mughals of India. This was also the case of the Ottomans. In fact, “Muhammad’s covenants with non-Muslim communities … became a blueprint for peace arrangements between the Ottomans and their tributaries” (Panaite 2019: 8). The Ottomans distinguished between Christians who were friends and allies of the Muslims and those who were at war with them (Wakil and Zein 220-222). In fact, the Sultan was prohibited from taking any belligerent action against a covenanted Christian community unless and until the highest ranking Muslim religious and political authorities had established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they had collectively violated their contractual obligations. The whole was not punished for the actions of the part.

The situation in the traditional Muslim world can be contrasted to that of the Americas. The United States entered into more than 500 treaties with Native American tribes between 1778 to 1871. All of them have been violated in part or in whole by the US government. Indigenous Americans continue to fight for their rights to this day, an effort that seems futile since the federal courts that deal with treaty rights are like swamps, muskeg, and quicksand. Native Americans have been stuck in them for centuries. They sap their strength. It drains their limited financial resources. The system sucks them down as it was designed to do to deprive them of the little rights they have. Hence, for some indigenous people, the solution to our problems is internal and starts with self-sufficiency. It’s about independence, not dependence. We do not ask for rights, we assert them. We do not ask the colonizer for sovereignty, we claim it.

As for Canada, most of the treaties with indigenous peoples were signed less than 150 years ago. Whether they involved the First Nations, the Inuit, or the Métis, they represent a history of broken promises. The sores are open. They are raw. And they sting. One of the advantages of multiculturalism, it could be argued, is the influx of immigrants who have also suffered from imperialism and colonization. Some of them can empathize with the predicament and plight of the aboriginal peoples of Canada and partner with them in the joint struggle for human rights and the dignity of the human person.

Why, I wonder, do indigenous people insist on having their identity determined by the colonizer? Indian identity defined by the colonizer on the basis of blood quantum? Métis identity determined by the Canadian courts? No. It is up to indigenous people, namely, people of proven indigenous ancestry, who identify as indigenous, and who share the indigenous worldview, and who are recognized as such by other indigenous people, to establish the criteria for community membership.

Why, I wonder, do indigenous people insist on being controlled by the Indian Act and other treaties, that were never respected? The systems put in place in Canada and the United States have been a complete and total catastrophe. “Well, it’s all we have,” some will argue. How can you give that up? We can and, in some cases, we should. Louis Riel was a visionary. He understood the adversary. He warned Indians and Métis against accepting to be placed in reservations. He insisted that they should be full citizens, not wards of the state, with the right to vote and the right to receive the title to the land. Indigenous leaders must come together and propose a new relationship with the Canadian and American governments: one that is just, fair, and equitable to all parties.   

We are faced with a plethora of social, political, economic, and spiritual problems and scores of potential solutions. We can only touch upon some of them in speeches, panels, and presentations. We cannot address them all nor can we solve them all. As individuals, we must start with ourselves, with our minds, with our souls. We must care for our physical health and our mental health. We must care for our intellects through education.

We must cultivate our spirituality. That could be through traditional indigenous beliefs or any other religious system. Some indigenous people adhere to traditional beliefs. Some are Bahai. Some are Buddhists. Some are Muslims. But, overwhelmingly, most of them are Christians. And there is nothing wrong with that so long as it is not imposed, is embraced by choice, and serves a positive purpose in life. Being a Christian or a Muslim does not make one less Native, Métis or Inuit not any more than being a Hindu, a Sikh or a Muslim makes one less of an Indian from India.

Religion provides hope and inculcates values. Some indigenous people are leftists. Some are secular humanists. The key is to have some anchor in life and some sort or moral compass. Embrace positive beliefs and adopt positive values that do not contradict our traditional teachings. We need to elevate not degenerate. I may be a Muslim but I do not want to see aboriginal people embrace the ideology of ISIS and commit atrocities in Syria and elsewhere. Religion can be an opiate. Religion can be a delusion, a source of sickness, and a disease. However, religion can also be a cure, a source of solace, and a saving grace.

When I speak, I speak for myself, and I speak for those who share my views, in part or in whole, whether they are indigenous or not, whether they are Muslims or not. Communities are made up of individuals. While all communities have leaders, they do not necessarily have a popular mandate and represent the views of all their constituents. We need to listen to all voices, come to some sort of a consensus, and move forward with some semblance of unity within that diversity.

When it comes to decolonization, we need to tread carefully. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We take what is good and we reject what is bad. We should not be stagnant. Everything but the Creator evolves: languages evolve, cultures evolve, societies evolve, laws evolve, science evolves. We are not interested in moving backwards. We are not interested in a freeze-dried or fossilized way of life. While we should be conscious of the past, we must live in the present with our eyes on the future. I transmit traditional knowledge to my children: trapping, fishing, hunting, gathering, canoeing, kayaking, and wilderness survival. I do not expect them to go make a living through the buffalo hunt. I encourage them to be educated, successful, people, not stereotypes.

There was no violent European conquest of Canada under the French. In New France, there was no “war against the Indians” as there was in the United States and Latin America. There was no attempted extermination or genocide comparable to what was committed by certain Spanish, British, Anglo-Canadian, and American leaders. The encounter between the French and the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas was distinct. French men married First Nations women. There were also cases of French women who married First Nations men. As Samuel de Champlain said: “Our sons shall wed your daughters and we shall be but one people.” In some indigenous languages, the name for French people was “those who marry our daughters.” That was not the case in the United States and in English Canada where racism generally prevented intermixing. In Canada, the French were concerned with coexistence with indigenous people. They were a key component of the economy and the fur trade. Alliances were made. Territories were delineated. And, in the process, a new nation of people was created: the Métis, who served as a bridge between cultures and languages.

In Latin America, there was a violent military conquest that resulted in the deaths of millions upon millions of human  beings through war and disease. Spanish men sexually assaulted or married indigenous women; however, their offspring, although Mestizo, identified as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino. They adopted the language, culture, and religion of the conquerors and colonizers. The situation in Canada was different. French men, as well as some Irish and Scottish men, married indigenous women, adopted indigenous culture, and learned indigenous languages. They literally went Native. They became culturally indigenous and their offspring with indigenous women were genetically so. The Métis, regardless of how much so-called “white blood” they may have, identify as indigenous and are legally recognized as such.

Since they are proud of both their First Nations and European ancestry, many Métis become uncomfortable when people start speaking disparagingly of “white settler colonialism” and “race-shifting.” They find it profoundly offensive. Métis culture is as indigenous as it is European. We are strong like the Indians and crazy like the French. We are part Indian and part French and bloody proud of both. When you insult French settlers, you are insulting my papa just like when you insult First Nations, you are insulting my mama. We do not hate non-Natives. What we oppose is injustice. Hence, we seek to right wrongs without wronging others in the process.

The Métis have been genetically mixed for hundreds of years. How can a person who is half indigenous and half French shift race? What is more, that very concept of race is a European construct. We are a people. We share a common history and a common culture. The Métis are at the center of a spectrum that spans French Canadians and First Nations. Some of my ancestors identified as Indians and lived on reservations. Some identified as French Canadians and lived in French-Canadian communities. And yet others struck a balance between both cultures and identified as Métis. That is a choice what we make and that is not made by others, especially outsiders.

We are les Gens Libres, the Free People, the People who Own Themselves. We do not like to be imposed upon. When people imposed themselves on us, we would relocate. We would resettle elsewhere. They pushed us north, south, east, and west. When push came to shove, we fought back, in Canada and the United States. Christianity was used against us but it was also used to help us. The liberals, the leftists, and now the ultra-woke crowd wish to come to our rescue, and save us, despite us. This is also an imposition, much of which violates our traditions and cultural norms, the most important of which include tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness. The Métis were always quick to fight but even quicker to make up and make peace.

We are not people who hold endless grudges and who seek revenge. And we certainly do not punish people for what they did not do and what was done centuries ago. So, when it comes to this cancel culture, many of my people say thanks but no thanks. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. Do not cancel others lest you also be cancelled. Freedom of expression comes first: not your infantile feelings. Freedom of thought, religion, and association come first: not your intolerant, totalitarian, social-engineering agenda that is advanced through bullying, harassment, de-platforming, and violence.  

We are no more interested in living in the past than we are interested in erasing the past. Exonerate Louis Riel? What for? Who are you to forgive him? You did not kill him. What’s done is done. Move on. Your “white guilt” is not healthy: it’s harmful, for yourselves, and for us. We are not interested in dividing people. We are interested in uniting people. We are all children of the Great Spirit. We are all human beings. We need to focus on shared values and universal ethics.

We need to fix ourselves before we can help fix others. And when we help others, we help our immediate family first, then our extended family, then our neighborhood, and then our community, our city, our province or state, our nation, our continent, and finally, our planet, Mother Earth, as a whole. We cannot do everything but we must all do something. Pick a cause, one cause, and pursue it: addiction, domestic violence, human trafficking, missing and exploited women, education, mental health, spiritual development, political advocacy, and environmental protection.

How about art, culture, music, dance, theatre, and cinema? How about entrepreneurship? How about business development? Nothing is too little. Eat healthy. Exercise. Finish high school. Get a GED. Start a daycare. Become a millionaire. Become a billionaire. But give back to your people. Respect your elders. Be kind to children. Smile. Take small steps. Just move because movement is life. I am a work in progress. We all are. We must live and learn. We must grow. And like DNA, we must pass it on, and transmit information, knowledge, heritage, culture, and values to the next generation. The project of building up a people is generational.

Merci. Thank you. Mīna Kawāpamitin. Au revoir. See you soon. Ila al-liqah. Ciao. Hasta luego. Wa salaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu. May peace and blessings be upon you all.

Works Cited

Morrow, John Andrew. The Messenger of Mercy: The Covenants of Compassion from the Messenger of Mercy. New Delhi: Sanbun, 2021.

Panaite, Viorel. 2019. Ottoman Law of War and Peace: The Ottoman Empire and Its Tribute-Payers from the North of the Danube. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

Wakil, Ahmed El, and Ibrahim Zein. “Remembering the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad: Shared Historical Memory of Good Governance and Peaceful Co-Existence.” Al-Shajarah: ISTAC Journal of Islamic Thought and Civilization 25.2 (2020): 219-262.  Internet: shaj/article/view/114 0/437