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Episode 15: All is Not Fair in Love, War and Shrunken Heads

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Episode 15: All is not Fair in Love, War, and Shrunken Heads

Tuesday October 5, 2021

When I was about 9 years old, I was given, a kit to make my own shrunken heads out of apples. The kit came with carving tools, sewing implements, beads, and synthetic hair. I peeled an apple and shaped the basic contours of a small face and dried it for several hours using the heat of a light bulb. Once dried, I added the hair and adorned the carved facial features with beads and string. I remember being proud of my creation. I hung the shrunken head around my neck and enjoyed the reactions of people who were shocked by the creepy appearance of the small sculpture. At the time, I was completely ignorant of the context, the real cultural practices behind my toy. The practice of shrinking heads was specific to Jivar people of Peru and Ecuador. In this episode, I want to introduce you to my aunt Della Hoffman, who kept an authentic, shrunken head on her bedroom dresser. It is one of those family stories that very much needs to be placed in a larger context.

Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, I am Kael Sharman. I am honoured that you are coming along as I climb my family tree. I want to know how and why my ancestors came to Canada; I want to understand their individual roles in colonial violence. Part of what it will mean for Canada to move forward in the age of reconciliation will be for Canadians with settler pasts to understand our need to uphold treaties.

Today’s story begins on the traditional territory of the Chippewa Kettle and Stony Point First Nation here in Ontario, Canada, and travels all the way over to Peru and Ecuador in South America, home to the Jivaro people.

The detail of this story comes from a memoir written by my Great Aunt Della. As I read through the stories, I would pause, to look through photos of the people she was referring to. When I looked through photos of my grandmother and her siblings, I can’t help, but to be charmed. There were horses, dairy cows, and an amazing picture of my great grandfather holding onto the side of the Nixon Dairy wagon with one hand, while his other hand looked to be slightly tipping his hat. He was looking right into the camera with a wry smile on his face. It was like a scene out of Mary Poppins. And it is at this point that it dawns on me, these pictures, like Della’s memoir, are like scrolling through a social media feed – we see a carefully curated impression. And that is how I must think about the memoir written by my great aunt Della. Although I need to rely on this memoir, wherever possible, I have checked the facts in the story. I learned a great deal about Della’s adult life, and how her experiences fit into the larger narrative of WWII. And a larger pattern in my family tree of migrations between the United States and Canada. Back and forth, for love, war, sometimes both, as was the case for Della Nixon.

My great aunt Della was older sister to my grandma, Bessie Nixon. Della was born in 1916, on a large farm in London, Ontario. Smack dab in middle of WWI, by the time she met her husband Bill at the age of 25, WWII was in full swing. Della worked in a Helmet factory and enjoyed spending some of her hard-earned money going out dancing with her youngest sister, Edna Jean. Some of the dances were held in or near a town called Clinton, Ontario because American soldiers were stationed there for training. Clinton is about an hour Northwest of London, situated along the southeastern shore of Lake Huron on the traditional territory of the Chippewa Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.

The town of Clinton was established in 1831, right after the Huron Tract Treaty, or Treaty #29, was signed on July 10, 1827.

This same source, however, also indicates that Treaty 29, was signed on August 13, 1833. This conflicting information seems to stem from disputes over the validity of the treaty and the land included in the treaty. Negotiations with the federal government went on unsuccessfully throughout the 1920s and 30s. The Federal government however used the opportunity to seize any land they wanted under the War Measures Act during WWII. The Canadian government ended up taking land that included the Stony Point reserve and burial grounds. The Stony Point First Nation were given around $50,000 in compensation and relocated to the Kettle Point Reserve nearby.

Despite promises that the relocation would be temporary, the reserve remained a military camp into the 1990s. Moreover, neither the provincial nor the federal government honoured promises that they would protect the Stony Point burial grounds and gravesites, but the Department of National Defence maintained that it required the land for training purposes. It is for this reason that the website for the Chippewa Kettle and Stony Point First Nation lists their traditional lands as unceded. But the word unceded does not even come close to conveying the betrayal. A betrayal that desecrates sacred ground and the ancestors of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.

Now, if you go to the website of the town of Clinton, Ontario you get quite a different story of the same period in history. Clinton, takes great pride in its role in WWII. The town solidified itself in Canadian history as the home of the Radar. A technology that played a key role in allied victory in WWII. As allies, Canada and the US collaborated in developing new technologies such as the radar. Soldiers using radar were trained by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), an ambitious plan that saw the training of more than 130,000 air force personnel. Including pilots from all over the United States.

Canada’s role in this plan was recognized by the then President, Franklin Roosevelt, who called the US the “Arsenal of Democracy” and referred to Canada as the “Aerodrome of Democracy.”Given the way the government obtained the land for the training facility though makes it tough for me to see any democracy here.

It was, however, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that brought Bill Hoffman, an American soldier, to Clinton, Ontario, where he met my aunt Della Nixon.

Della was born in London, Ontario, in 1916. She was the eldest of four siblings. One of those siblings was my grandmother Bessie Nixon. They grew up on a large farm on Springbank Drive.

In 1941, my grandmother, Bessie Nixon was the first of her siblings to get married. That left Della and Edna Jean, her two sisters, to continue the fun together. Part of that fun included attending dances in Clinton, Ontario, where it was well known to the local girls that American soldiers were in much need of dance partners.

It was at one of these dances, that Bill Hoffman won the heart of Della Nixon. They attended 4 dances in total before Bill was called away for duty. After the attack on Pearl Harbour Dec. 7, 1941, they were able to meet up one more time.

After only 4 dates, Bill declared his love for Della. Before leaving for duty, he gave Della his Westfield wristwatch. Bill told Della that he intended to marry her before he came back from the war. Bill was stationed at different air bases throughout the United States, finally being sent to Panama to patrol the Panama Canal, another potential target of Japan.

Bill was an excellent soldier, and in 1943, he was chosen to return to the United States for officer training in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Before training started, he had some time to visit with family and friends. He took this opportunity to meet up again with Della. He sent a Telegram inviting Della to Detroit Michigan. As it happens, my Great-Great Grandmother (Della’s Grandmother) lived in Detroit.

She had relocated there after remarrying in the late 1920’s. Both Jean and Della travelled to Detroit, where they stayed with their grandmother. Apparently, it was quite a reunion. Bill and Della had not seen each other in 2 years. Della reported in her memoir that when Bill rang the doorbell, she felt as if the world stood still, and then bolted down the stairs to be the first one at the door. They visited at my great-great grandmother’s house, into the evening, having dinner, and catching up until Bill had to return to is hotel. The next day he brought Della to a jeweller to pick out an engagement ring. Bill had to leave for Fort Monmouth the following day to begin training. The plan was to get married as soon as he graduated from officer training school in September. In August, Della left her job at the helmet factory to begin making plans for the wedding.

Bill’s parents had both passed away before he met Della. Bill sent Della his mother’s gold wedding band to have it resized. As soon as Bill graduated, he returned to London, Ontario where they were married. After a honeymoon in New York, they moved about for a few years to accommodate Bill’s work and training schedule. They eventually settled in Bill’s hometown of Santa Rosa, California.

You know they saying, you never really know someone until you live with them. Well, I imagine that after having only 4 dates, prior to being engaged and getting married there were a few surprises in store for Della. One of those surprises was that Bill had obtained an authentic tsantsa, or “shrunken head” while he was stationed in Panama. And it wasn’t enough that Bill had a tsantsa, but he liked to keep it on the bedroom dresser. Even when they realized at one point, that the tsantsa had become infested with insects that laid small white eggs in the long black hair. The head was sent to a fumigator and then returned to its place on their dresser. Now before you get all disgusted and judgmental, let’s discuss for a moment the background information. According to ZME Science, The Jivaro people have been resisting Spanish oppression since the 1500s and doing so quite successfully thanks to their horrifying warring practices that included headhunting and head shrinking for ritualistic and religious purposes. “The [Jivaro’s] military tradition and philosophy were also unique. While wars elsewhere were fought for power and territory, for the Jivaro war was all about vengeance — they called it blood revenge. If a relative was killed and wasn’t avenged, the Jivaro feared that their kin’s spirit would be angry and bring bad luck to the tribe. But killing their enemies wasn’t enough — the Jivaro needed proof that their ancestors had been avenged. And that proof was the heads of their fallen enemies.”

I find it telling that Bill Hoffman, a radar operator, steeped in a war to uphold democratic ideals, felt the need to have a human head that served as proof of blood revenge. And while it was Obvious that Bill cherished the tsantsa. I am not convinced that Della felt the same way. Bill died in 1984. I often wondered if Della got rid of the tsantsa, and whether the tsantsa found, at the very least, a quiet resting place, and ideally, a return trip to Peru. I doubt it was the later, Della most certainly would have recorded that in her memoir.

In many of the family stories that I have told for this podcast, war has served as a catalyst for migration, and yet it seems like the more mobile we are, the more potential we create to expand our families, our love interests, and inflict damage, whenever we ignorantly venture into the culturally unfamiliar. Funny word – un…familiar. It presumes that family is known, and yet here I am getting to know my own family with this story in the hopes of reconciliation. Considering the story content today, I wonder if we are not trying to build peaceful relations for the first time. Reconciliation presumes that there were peaceful relations that need rebuilding. The story I share with you today suggests that peace is yet to be achieved. This would require treating not only each other with dignity and respect today, but also our ancestors. Including the ancestors in the burial grounds of the Stony Point First Nation, and all the Tsantsa, traded for money, dehumanized, as mere cultural curiosities.

My aunt Della has played an important part in my growing familiarity with my settler past. She consciously wrote her story out in a memoir that has been passed around my family in the last decade. That memoir is where I got my start for this story. It has also inspired me to ask my own parents to write memoirs, and perhaps write down some memories of my own and that story will include a conscious understanding of the current context and the role my individual actions play in conciliation now, and in the future.

Oh hey, before you go I want to tell you the story of the Ipperwash Crisis as told in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

In May 1993, a group of Stony Point members peacefully occupied part of Camp Ipperwash, a military training camp, to assert their claim to the land and to prompt negotiations with the federal government. In 1994, the federal government announced that it would return the land, but, military personnel and equipment remained on site for months after the announcement. Frustrated Stony Point First Nation protesters forced their way into the camp prompting the military to withdraw.

The Ontario Provincial Police, or the OPP, deployed officers to Ipperwash Provincial Park, as protesters intended to occupy the park as well. On September 4, 1995, protestors entered the park after the federal government refused to return Stoney Point Reserve that included burial grounds not being protected or respected. (Remember the Stony Point were evicted from their community during WWII).

Unverified reports of protestors firing guns, and the use of rifles by the OPP contributed to increasing anxiety and tension.

Owing to misunderstanding and miscommunication, both the protesters and the OPP believed that the “other side” was planning an attack on September 6, 1995. Conflicting accounts of an altercation involving Indigenous protesters and unverified reports of firearms in the park led the OPP to believe that the occupiers had become violent. In addition to the OPP, Emergency Response Team, and the Crowd Management Unit, the Tactics and Rescue Unit were called in. The police, wearing protective gear and carrying weapons, advanced on the protesters to force them back into the park. In an effort to decrease the heightened tension one protester advanced toward the police, who responded by running to meet him; about 15 occupiers rushed to his support their fellow protestor and several physical confrontations followed. In the commotion, acting Sergeant Ken Deane shot Dudley George, claiming self defense. Deane though, was convicted of criminal negligence causing death on April 28, 1997. Deane later died in a car accident before he could testify at the inquiry.

After much stalling, the inquiry finally took place between 2006 and 2008. It revealed numerous problems with the province’s response. It appeared that several members of the OPP team were either largely ignorant of the issues around the protest and held racist views about Indigenous people in general. Former Attorney General Charles Harnick also testified that just hours before the shooting, Premier Mike Harris stated, “I want the fucking Indians out of the park,” a comment Premier Harris denied making.

The inquiry also found that government fueled a violent reaction, by maintaining that the occupation was illegal, and that there would be no third-party mediators and no negotiations. It was the OPP though, that was criticized for failing to educate their officers regarding Indigenous rights and issues, and for neglecting to use appropriate mediators or negotiators.

The inquiry also revealed problems with communication, and with the system of intelligence gathering, analysis, and transmission. The federal government, which had not been involved during the crisis, and which had failed to return the land to the Stony Point First Nation in the first place, was also blamed for its part in the tragic outcome.

The outcome of the inquiry called for several specific measures, including the immediate clean-up and return of the army camp to the Stony Point First Nation, monetary compensation, and a public apology from the federal government for its failure to return the land as promised. Other recommendations included

1) establishment of an independent body, the Treaty Commission of Ontario, to oversee land claims settlements;

2) increased public education about treaties and land claims;

3) creation of a provincial Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs;

4) creation of a formal consultation committee involving the OPP and Indigenous organizations;

5) ongoing training and education of OPP leaders in terms of Indigenous history, customs, and rights;

6) greater transparency and clarity regarding the relationship between police and government; and

7) involvement of the federal government in any Indigenous occupations or protests, particularly those involving land claims.

Shortly after the inquiry report was released the Ontario government established a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. The province also agreed to transfer Ipperwash Provincial Park to the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in 2007. In 2010, the Ontario government announced that it would transfer the remaining land to the federal government, who had the power to add it to the reserve.

Negotiations around the return of Camp Ipperwash continued between the federal government and the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation until 2015.

When a $95 million settlement was accepted from the federal government, including the return of the land, as well as about $20 million in compensation to band members and $70 million for future development of the land.

Although the deal was ratified some 20 community members demonstrated against the deal. And I do not think consensus has ever been achieved, because the website of the Chippewa Kettle and Stony Point First Nation still list the land as unceded.

The events at Ipperwash highlight the importance of individual actors having contextual knowledge that informs their actions. It is a wonder then that so many indigenous cultures include strong oral/story telling traditions. Indeed, events such as the Ipperwash Crisis requires an understanding of the past century. It stands to reason then that whenever we find ourselves, in situations where rushed action is demanded and information is missing, conflicting, or withheld, that there is something to be gained in the realm of power and politics. Know your history, know the contextual forces that bear down on our lives today and consider that understanding a rebellious force in peace building.

Until next time, take care, I hope to see you again at the Maple Family Treehouse. Cheers!

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