For me to say today that I am ‘indigenous’ will raise a lot of eyebrows, particularly in Canada. That word has become very useful for correctly describing people who are native to North America — or, as the Oxford dictionary puts it, inhabitants from before the arrival of colonists. It is now more than a distinction of place of origin and ownership, but also of place within a particular struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

But the stories that are wrapped up in words like ‘indigenous’ and ‘colony’ are rich and varied, and their simple subversion by memes and movements does no justice to the breadth of history and the commonality of its peoples. Colonization and indigeneity are the yin and yang of civilization —an often disturbing but unavoidable tension that has been both destructive and fruitful in profound ways.

Though I was born in Ontario, I am readily characterized as a colonizer. My parents came over from Holland three years before I was born, and their church/school community certainly had some of the earmarks of ‘colony’. The cluster of homes between Pontiac and Murphy Road — between First and Second Church Sarnia was once a gathering of Dutch newcomers to Canada. As much as these colonies now seem to be fragmenting, I have not lost touch with them and still hold them dear.

But on the other side, when my parents left for Canada, they were indigenous, and that makes me properly native to the Netherlands, from early times. This never really hit home for me until I started working on my family tree. Till then, I thought of myself as a European Caucasian whose ancestors happened to live in Holland until they picked up again and went to Canada. Yes of course, I had a soft spot for the motherland, but it felt a bit accidental, or incidental.

Rooted in the Land

Then the ancestors started showing up, twelve by twelve, on and I found my people. Generation after generation preceded me with their names, births, marriages and deaths recorded in places standing not far apart, with increasingly familiar names. Every branch suggested a story, often with multiple untimely deaths, rooted in the land and playing out in just a small portion of the Netherlands

Last summer’s weeklong, extended family reunion of a hundred van der Laans (my mother’s family) in the province of Groningen cemented this feeling of kinship. We visited city streets and landmarks, country roads and waterways and family places that have been known and grown over five hundred plus years, from an immemorable time. During a tour of the Hunebedcentrum in Borger, just thirty kilometers from where my parents were born, the largest hunebed (burial stones) in Holland reminded me of the reality that I have ancestors from the Bronze Age.

Escape and Opportunity

The stories of many indigenous peoples, including those in Canada and Holland, are worth sharing. Up until a few centuries ago, most lived modest, simple lives. They were people of the land, in tune with nature. They were industrious, sophisticated (for their time and place) and spiritual. They were tied into large trade networks and traveled widely by water. My Groninger people were variously oppressed and occupied by Franks, Spaniards and Germans. In the face of trauma they were survivors. And many were displaced by circumstances, policies, economies and population densities beyond their control.

Once, the Netherlands was itself a magnet for displaced and migrating people, but also a launching pad. With the establishment of colonies in the Hudson valley (now Albany and New York), starting in 1614 under Dutch jurisdiction, migrants crossed the ocean to this new world, often to escape deprivations, but all for opportunity. This quest for a better life, and the inevitable conflicts that arise, is the stuff of history, the world over.

A Broken Alliance

The early Dutch colonies, treatied with the Mahicans to live amongst them on settlements in the Hudson valley, while trading with them and the neighbouring Mohawks. The Mohawks (most easterly of the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy — long since joined by treaty) grew close enough to the Dutch to adopt some of their customs. Soon, the upheaval of imported, European conflicts and radically changing economies drew the Haudenosaunees away from their ancestral lands, below the Great Lakes, into what is now Ontario.

This colonization of southern Ontario, with a decisive push around 1650, inevitably caused tensions with the indigenous Attawandaron (Neutrals) and Wendat (Hurons). But, in 1701, the Dish With One Spoon treaty (signified by a wampum belt) joined the area’s indigenous peoples together. The (by now) Six Nations became a refuge for peoples of more nations, much like the Netherlands had been in the seventeenth century.

There’s been too little contact between twentieth century colonizing Dutch newcomers and our first nations. We all have our enclaves and we nurture our natal roots and minority status. The seventeenth century Dutch connection has not helped and we have not taken our cue from this early alliance of equals. Nor have we fostered, honoured and built upon subsequent treaties. That’s a shame.

The least we can do is acknowledge the place and rich histories of indigenous peoples everywhere and celebrate the contributions they have made and continue to make. With these peoples, I desire to stand shoulder to shoulder, not shield against shield.

Henry de Jong, a retired renovator, is the family historian keeping heritage alive at

Sidebar: See also the fascinating book by Russell Shorto: The Island at the Center of the World – The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the forgotten colony that shaped America