“So what are your tribe calling us today?” – First Nations
Troy Media – by Mike Robinson
A few years ago I took my Zodiac out to Yuquot to visit with Ray and Terry Williams, long-time pals who still live close to the land and sea on Nootka Island, off Vancouver Island’s central west coast. Ray came strolling down the government wharf to meet me as I tied up Kakowin. After a friendly hug, he said, “Welcome home, Michael,” and he helped me schlep my gear up to his house.
“So what are your tribe calling us today?” Ray said as we walked through the green nettles and blackberry bushes that line the path up to the William’s home. We have played this game before, and always with some degree of humour.
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“Well, Ray, I think we’ve left ‘Indian’ behind, but we’re still big on “aboriginal,’ ‘First Nations,’ ‘indigenous,’ ‘Native,’ and of course ‘Eskimo,’ ‘Inuit,’ ‘Metis,’ and ‘Non- Status’ are out there as well.
“Boy, you guys are so confusing to us! You need a program to keep up with all these words and terms.” Ray’s eyes wrinkled in laughter; “I am still Moachaht.”
‘Moach’ is the Nuu Chah Nulth word for deer. ‘Aht’ is a suffix meaning ‘people of.’ The Moachaht are the ‘People of the Deer’ in Ray Williams’ language, which has 10,000 year-old archaeological roots. “Hey Mike, you forgot ‘Ahts’ – some guys think that is who we are, you know ‘Hesquiaht, Kyuquaht, Moachaht . . .” Ray laughed some more as we approached the house.
After this discussion I once again wondered why Canadians as a whole have such a need to compartmentalize, group, homogenize, and brand indigenous (now I’m doing it myself!) societies as one culture, one society, one political entity?
Another long- time friend James Ross, a Gwich’ in from Tetlit’ Zheh (which we confusingly call Fort McPherson), points out that this compulsion to unify aboriginal (now I’ve done it again) cultures flies in the face of Canada’s much vaunted success as a diverse nation. “Why do we keep on letting new immigrants in as citizens and celebrate their ethnic diversity, and yet deny it to our own First Nations? Just look at all the Native diversity that Canada can boast of from coast to coast to coast! Why do we expect Native people to be one entity politically, socially and culturally? Why is anyone surprised that we are so diverse?”
Certainly the last week has been quite an eye opener in this respect, as the Idle No More movement gained momentum, and the internet message boards lit up with free advice for Indians. My reading of it was pretty simplistic. A lot of the commentary was angry, and a lot of it was crass generalization. “They’ll have to grow up and get jobs like the rest of us.” “Ninety per cent of all reserve Indians are unemployed. The other 10 per cent work for government.” “I’m tired of my tax money supporting their culture.”
Well, at one level, at least we are having a national discussion. Jeffrey Simpson used a portion of his Saturday January 12 Toronto Globe and Mail column to point out that, according to Statistics Canada’s survey of 2006, Canada has 612 bands of aboriginal nations, on more than 2,600 reserves, “many in remote areas with small land bases and populations that measured in the hundreds or few thousands of people.”
Sure, there are similarities in the experience of people who live close to the land, in many respects still partially in the bush economy, but there are many complex differences as well. Linguistically, Canada has 50 viable aboriginal languages, but only three (Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut) are ranked as truly secure from extinction in the long-term. Each of those languages reflects the uniqueness of the landscape that it describes. Each of the cultures whose values find expression in those 50 languages has unique linguistic roots. Like French and English and Arabic and Mandarin. So the question remains: why does the Canadian linguistic and cultural majority persist in attempting to aggregate, to treat all aboriginal peoples as one?
Maybe it’s just ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ or a persistent cultural inability to see diversity at home, when it seems obvious and is celebrated abroad. Perhaps it reflects a now innate Canadian guilt about the imminent threat to those 47 aboriginal languages, or the obvious inner-city poverty, or the very existence of the Idle No More movement. Maybe it’s time to Celebrate More, to celebrate the diversity of those whose traditional lands we share, and to make personal decisions to decolonize our thinking.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.
Category: First Nations