The Pavilion

Beyond Trauma Narratives

Resilience would be the underlying factor for everything. Because you think about it, you know, starting in 1400s and here we are in the 2000s now, and we’re still here. That’s what it would be about for me. How we’ve come through all this, and how we still have our old laws that we remember and that were heavily entrenched in making us who we are. And that’s the story. That’s the story.
—Kii’iljuus (Barbara Wilson) Hostess, Expo 67


Trauma has been a key part of a majority of the stories that have been told about Indigenous people since settlers started telling stories about Indigenous people. The earliest stories about the “Vanishing Indian” that coloured so much of the way settlers viewed Indigenous participants in world’s fairs since their heyday is rooted in people understanding Indigenous suffering.

Of course, in those times it was easier for settlers to ignore the role that they had played in perpetuating the trauma Indigenous peoples experienced. But by 1967, aided by a sentiment following WWII that made the kind of atrocities Indigenous peoples faced unacceptable, as well as the growing Civil Rights movement in the United States, the damage settler society had caused was becoming harder to sweep under the rug.

An acknowledgement of these ongoing horrors is important. But talking solely about Indigenous trauma comes at a cost—and the cost is the stereotypes that these stories reinforce about Indigenous peoples as being inherently down on their luck. It misses the very real thread of resilience that runs through Indigenous communities. After all, after over five hundred years of colonial onslaught, they’re still here, right?

Trauma stories sell—but at what cost? As Unangax scholar Eve Tuck writes, much of “the research on [Indigenous] communities has historically been damage centered, intent on portraying [Indigenous] neighborhoods and tribes as defeated and broken.” Especially in Canada, in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was designed to tell the stories of Residential School survivors and to make sure settler-Canadians understood the legacies their ancestors had, it isn’t often that one sees the term “Indigenous” next to a topic that isn’t trauma related.

In fact, whenever Indigenous people are asked for their stories, they are required to share stories of struggle; not much else really holds any interest in a settler psyche, especially because they’re so used to linking the Indigenous experience with depravity. bell hooks has written of this phenomenon, explaining that marginalized people are allowed “only [to] speak from that space in the margin that is a sign of deprivation, a wound, an unfulfilled longing. Only speak your pain,” she says.

While trauma sells, and in many cases, explaining histories of struggle offers marginalized groups an opportunity to seek reparations, and to have their pain acknowledged, at a certain point this trauma-focus has a negative impact on the marginalized, in this case, Indigenous, psyche. Tuck asks of this trend of trauma-traded-for-reparations: “are the wins worth the long term costs of thinking of ourselves as damaged?”

During Expo ’67, a time where Indian Residential Schools were still running in Canada, where the later-named Sixties Scoop pulled Indigenous children from their homes and shattered communities, where First Nations people had only had the federal vote for seven years, this trauma narrative was important. Settlers needed to know what they had done and what they were benefiting from.

Barbara Wilson suggested that the Indians of Canada Pavilion history panels, though they left things out, weren’t necessarily “spineless”, not for the time anyway. But now, in 2020, the trauma narrative—while important to acknowledge—is getting kind of heavy.

As Tuck explains, “I appreciate that, in many ways, there was a time and place for damage-centered research [and story-telling]. However, in talking with some […] elders, they agree that a time for a shift has come, that damage-centered narratives are no longer sufficient. We are in a new historical moment.”

This new historical moment serves to flip the narrative that has followed Indigenous people since contact—instead of five centuries of endless suffering, the narrative becomes five centuries of survival and resilience amidst an onslaught of colonial violence.

For Indigenous people, this narrative shift is crucial, because it not only serves to help build an acknowledgement of individual and community resilience in the present day, but it allows a new reading of histories that miss out on the fact that, quite frankly, Indigenous peoples have always done really cool shit. 

Take, like we mentioned in one of our earlier blog posts, the examples of the Kwakwaka’wakw playing on the settler idea of what Indigeneity should look like to get the financial resources they needed to protect their cultural practices that were consistently under attack. Understanding the Indigenous experience at world’s fairs as solely one of a weakened group of people being forced to perform against their will (that’s not to say that Indigenous people weren’t exploited, we can’t ignore that) is to miss the remarkable resourcefulness and resiliency that came with having to fight to exist within an oppressive system.

In the case of Expo ’67, it can be easy to lose Indigenous action in the stories about Residential School trauma, racism, and silencing that occurred throughout the entire process if we see Indigenous people in an inherent state of victimhood. Yes, these things did happen; Indigenous people did suffer.

But Barbara Wilson’s words at the end of this documentary remain true, and if you went through the episode the first time, and your takeaway was something akin to “wow, the Indigenous experience is horrible,” and you find yourself filled with guilt and shame, we suggest taking a second listen.

Because at every turn—be that when we hear about the meetings about the pavilion design, the actions the hostesses took as they brought settlers through an exhibit that forced them to reckon with their legacy, and the ways in which they let their own, Indigenous laws guide them through a process that was supposed to reflect a happy Canada back to the rest of the world—we see Indigenous resilience. We see Indigenous people working with what they were given to do some amazing things. We see distinctly Indigenous survival, and beauty, and humor. And that’s the story. That’s the story.