There is an insightful parable that has come to be referred to as “The Fight of Two Wolves Within You” or “”Which one do you feed.” You’ve probably seen it on your social media feed at one time or another. Here’s one version of it:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
This analogy applies as much to societies, cultures, and heritages as it does to individual human beings. These all have the potential within them to embolden tribalism, hatred, fear-mongering, and exploitation, on the one hand, or compassion, inclusivity, equality, and justice, on the other. It is a question of what vision the leaders of those communities choose, how they cultivate or neglect the many contrasting strands of their history and heritage, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Just as a complex text, like the Bible, can be read and interpreted in many different ways, conservatively or progressively, so can cultures be deployed and instrumentalized selectively in a myriad of ways.
I know that I am not alone in being concerned about how the heritage of the Scottish Highlands has so often been co-opted to support disturbingly conservative agendas, whether it be imperial militarism, colonial nostalgia, toxic masculinity, repressive religion, white supremacy, and so on. It often seems as though these regressive narratives have an exclusive monopoly on the Highland legacy and this offends and alienates many people with this ancestry who could potentially be engaged in re-purposing their heritage to better ends.
Back in 2014, I addressed a gathering of “leaders” of the Scottish-American heritage community and, as usual, highlighted some of the ways in which modern myth-making contradicts the historical, lived realities of Scottish Highlanders in Scotland and as immigrants in North America. Afterwards, one gentleman told me that he found my presentation disturbing, because he had always used Highlanders as role models to personify particular qualities that he wished to impress upon his son – as though Highlanders were simply two-dimensional figures to suit the purposes to which he needed them to serve, and as though any ethnic group should be reduced to such simple caricatures.
The reasons for the contortions of Highland – that is, Gaelic – heritage to these ends has everything to do with broader imperial context rather than any inherent traits. For the last two and a half centuries, Gaeldom has been dominated by conservative forces and personnel, as a matter of limited options as a society conquered by the most aggressive empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gaeldom has been so thoroughly impacted by and intertwined with British imperialism for the last several centuries that it is impossible to understand the history – or culture – without taking this imperial/colonial context into account.
But Gaeldom need not be relegated to or limited by this coloniality: there are radical strands in Gaelic heritage as well that have been waiting to be reclaimed and reactivated. This re-radicalization has been particularly lively in the last decade in Scotland due to a re-enfranchised political context, and as scholars we can question the dominant narrative of conservativeness by highlighting the radical Gaelic voice that does exist, and the potential for self-liberation and social equality latent within the tradition.
It’s fortunate that some of the leaders of the last immigrant community in North America where Scottish Gaelic language and culture has survived – Nova Scotia – are actively engaged in these issues. This is particularly important because they live beside an indigenous Mi’kmaw community which is struggling not just with the revitalization of their language and culture, but also with fundamental issues of land, sovereignty, and reconciliation. The 2016 “Mawiomi / Aonach: Sharing our Paths” symposium was one such opportunity in Nova Scotia to foster dialog reflecting on shared experiences of dispossession, dislocation, and subjugation, in the spirit of reconciliation.
People of Scottish Highland ancestry with a moral compass, who are open to the ideals of justice and equality, can find plenty in their ancestral heritage that aligns with the experience of other marginalized peoples and forms the foundation of an empathetic bridge with them. This is not a small task, however, and there is always the risk of trivialization, especially because of the lack of scholarly resources and guides. Doing this work authentically requires attention to the details and nuances of Scottish Gaelic history and culture, rather than vague, broad-brushstrokes invoking “tribes” and neo-pagan images. It is vital to understand the nature of coloniality, how and why it has been such a centripetal force in the Gaeldom over many centuries, and how it has impacted Gaelic consciousness and allegiances both in the Highlands and in the diaspora.
I’ll be offering the Radicalizing the Roots course through Hidden Glen Folk starting in January 2020, for those who wish to explore these paths toward reconciliation, decolonization, and racial and ethnic equity.
And in that spirit, poet Joyce Rankin of Cape Breton has allowed me to share here a previously unpublished poem she composed about her own journey of awareness about the implications of the immigration of her own Highland ancestors into Mi’kmaw territory and her own desire for reconciliation.
The circle drawn with Mi’kmaq symbols.
From the edge I watch the round dance, hear the drums
– the talk of old wrongs that linger on,
the new beginning that is now.
The Elder gazes out at a circle of white faces.
“You were all refugees”, she says,
“and we took you in”.
And yes, my own people came here in that time.
Disdained and dispossessed,
some came limping and weeping to these shores,
some following families and lovers, some for adventure, or thought of gain.
In the country of our ancestors we lived as you did, linked and sharing,
at once possessing and being possessed
by braes and burns and high peaks, from which we watched the sky.
Where you have the trees, we had the bracken, the heather,
and lived among each other. Until the clans were broken,
not by the great battle, but by a great betrayal.
Until the machines of politics and government
ground us down,
but not grinding us into the earth,
— they dug us out of it,
carried us away in coffin ships,
and we were spit out onto an unknown shore across wide waters.
Ships disgorging their cargos like
combines spewing out husked grain.
And there you were
linked and sharing, possessing and being possessed by
woods and stream, and high peaks from which you watched
a different part of the same sky.
And you helped us then, took us in.
Showed us food to be gathered from the woods and waters;
there was enough for all.
And friendship between us.
We built barns and cut the trees,
brought cattle and farmed the land.
Fished, and kept our language.
Oh but the land, it was the land we wanted.
It was paper deeds that defeated us at home.
and the deeds of spoiled and greedy children of the old chiefs,
the deeds to land we did not own in court of law.
And that lesson we learned and remembered:
You cannot win against the court of law,
and old covenants and sworn obligations are swept away,
along with honour,
by rivers of white paper that flow through courts of law.
In a new place the old story.
By language, race, religion; set apart,
dismissed, diminished. We, the Gaels,
less white than the English,
but whiter than the Mi’kmaq,
chose to press ourselves against the sleeves
of those who held the weapons, and the power.
That fierce connection to the old land,
the desolation of departure,
made us grasp this soil more firmly,
and brought sorrows upon you.
The lawyers came, and the government men,
to measure and label the land.
We wanted the deeds so we fenced it in
and signed our names;
stoked the machines of politics and government
and watched them grind you down.
And why did none of us speak?
The ones who sang of courage were silent,
the ones who sang of honour closed their eyes,
murmured that they meant you no harm.
And in the end, we had the land.
Through your long years of hardship
we did not ever ask, because we did not want to know.
But now there are those who do not wait to be asked;
they tell us what we need to know.
And now the wheel is turning.“We Were All Refugees” Joyce Rankin
For the trees are made into paper
to be pointed and directed like arrows,
reams and reams of paper
gather to a river,
and now it flows again through courts of law.