My last post was about what non-natives learn about us, and thus how we are portrayed by them. I suppose this post is about what we learn (and teach) about ourselves.
If you’ve ever been to an urban ceremony, you are probably used to hearing about the medicine wheel, about Turtle Island, the Grandfathers, the Creator and so on. You may hear about a woman’s moon-time, tobacco offerings, burning sage or sweetgrass or cedar when smudging.
There is a common ‘lingo’ at play that is easily picked up as being common to all aboriginal peoples, regardless of which nation you are actually from. This ‘lingo’ can help create a sense of community and can make you feel like you are a part of something legitimate and valuable which is certainly a feeling we as native people need more of.
However, this ‘lingo’ can also be very confusing. Growing up, I always associated the term ‘Turtle Island’ with the Haudenosaunee. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet that this is accurate, but I knew it wasn’t our term. It’s a beautiful image, don’t get me wrong…but there is no word in our Cree for ‘Turtle Island’. We have a word for Mother Earth, ‘okâwîmâwaskiy’, but I always got the impression that this was an introduced term, not something that was ‘ours’ per se. Cree territory, our territory, their territory…these are terms I am familiar with.
Nonetheless, many indigenous scholars and activists have taken to using this term and it has become somewhat ubiquitous even among non natives when referring to indigenous issues. I think it is a valid term to use if it is genuinely part of your tradition. However, I suppose this is the crux of the entire thing…is it part of your tradition, or not?
Pros to Pan-Indianism
I can see the value in creating an indigenous identity that transcends your particular nation. I think we do have some common beliefs and concerns. We can form alliances with one another to advocate for many communities with a stronger, unified voice. And that can work when we’re talking about potable water, diabetes, suicide, and other ‘modern’ afflictions.
Particularly in an urban context where there can be people from many different native communities, it is difficult to know whose traditions should be represented. There is a need to be inclusive, and it is also an issue of resources…there may not be an opportunity to speak to every person’s traditions individually. You have a wide range of people in the urban context, from those who beat a circular path between the city and their home community, to those who were adopted into non-native families and who are struggling to come to terms with their own identities.
Unfortunately, these are all the ‘positives’ I can think of.
Cons to Pan-Indianism
I think Pan-Indianism creates much more confusion than can be justified by ‘inclusiveness’. I feel that I can value the indigenous traditions of other nations without necessarily folding them into my own ‘traditions’. Thus, when I teach my children about Turtle Island and Sky Woman, I do so within the explicit context that these are not our stories and beliefs.
I’m am particularly conflicted when it comes to the Medicine Wheel. This is a Plains symbol, and from what I understand there are different teachings associated with it, depending on which Plains culture you come from. I personally don’t know much about the medicine wheel as a part of my own tradition…I’m not sure there is anything to know.
What I do know is what I’ve been taught over years…four directions, four colours, four ‘races’, etc etc etc. I think it is a good metaphor for holistic approaches to healing, learning, governance and what have you…but the Medicine Wheel as most of us know it today is anything but traditional. It is a new, and it is Pan-Indian.
I can accept it as a modern symbol, but I cannot accept that it is a Mi’gmaq tradition for example…not when I’ve had Mi’gmaq people vociferously deny this has any place in their traditional teachings. I don’t want someone telling me this is part of their tradition, unless it actually is. I don’t want to be told that this is a part of our tradition as though all natives have some cosmic link to this teaching. I don’t want people who are struggling to reconnect with their communities to be fed a culture that isn’t theirs. It devalues and obscures our own traditions and the worst part of it, in my opinion, is that we are complicit in this. We write ‘Medicine Wheel teachings’ into our curriculum, into our health strategies, into our visions of governance and so on.
This is not a new controversy, and others have a heck of a lot more insight and information on the subject than I, but I wanted to explore it a little. This brings me to something I haven’t seen discussed all that much:
Before 1982, the Métis had no legal status whatsoever. We were lumped into this hodge-podge ‘other’ category along with the non-status Indians. There was certainly an emerging political consciousness in various communities, but we were not recognised as rights-bearing communities and I grew up with the idea that being Métis wasn’t all that much different than being Indian. We spoke Cree, just like plenty of our relations on the Stoney reserves we grew up next to*. We all had Stoney and Cree relations either through marriage or because way back when, one of our relatives took Treaty and the other took scrip.
That being said, there was also a fair amount of racism being bandied about. Some Métis expressed the same derogatory feelings towards their First Nations cousins as non-natives did. Those of us from communities outside the Settlements often had family members that ‘hid’ their Indian roots. Being Métis wasn’t necessarily something you were taught to be proud about. The issues here are complex and include a lot of horizontal violence, so I’m not going to go too far into it.
What I’ve seen emerge is a Pan-Métis identity. That’s really what I want to address. I think that there is enormous pressure on Métis to develop this identity because we are legally required since the Powley decision to be different than First Nations. Well that’s great and all, to be a distinct people…but what the heck do you do when your First Nations relations jig just like you do, and you share most of your traditions with them?
This idea that we aren’t massively inter-married and inter-connected is ahistorical. Particularly in Alberta. Those of us who did not grow up on Reserve can point to that as a difference, yes. But I don’t speak Michif. I’ve got trappers and fishers in my family, but those same family members are shared by on-Reserve Status Indians too.
There is a push to identify ourselves with the Métis sash, the infinity flag, the Orange Blossom Special and Louis Riel…and I won’t lie, I find these things appealing. When I stopped running away from my community and started to realise that our traditions have value, I was very attracted to this emerging Métis consciousness. It is something I could share with other people, something tangible we had in common.
But these things don’t actually set us apart all that much. Many of my First Nations friends and relations can say that these things are a part of their traditions too, to some extent or other. Why on earth would I want to embrace a definition that creates further space between me and other natives?
On one hand, I’ve been railing about enforced ‘sameness’ which ignores our differences, and on the other I am rejecting what I consider to be artificial divides. The two are not contradictory. The Métis in Alberta are not the same as the Métis in Ontario.
The Real Issue
Personally, I think the histories and traditions of our specific communities are fascinating. There are a lot of people out there who have been disconnected from their communities…removed as children in many cases during the 60s sweep or later, and who are really struggling to ‘come home’. How can they do that when they are fed a hodge-podge of Turtle Island/Medicine Wheel/Red River Jig/Dreamcatchers and Mukluks? Unless we want to create a group of people with the barest surface knowledge of ‘shared traditions’ that aren’t actually shared, then we need to be working harder to rediscover our own traditions and histories. We need to drop the easy symbols and stories, and dig deeper.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Pan-Indianism and Pan-Métisism are a reaction to racism and colonialism and are intended to reach out to a mostly urban aboriginal population, and from what I understand it is a good starting step when dealing with people who are truly on the margins. If it remains a ‘gateway’ into a deeper discovery, then I can probably live with it. But let’s not stop there! Hopefully my kids won’t have to wait until they hit their 30s to realise that it’s okay they speak Cree and not Michif, and that when they can’t immediately come up with more than just symbolic differences between their culture and the Plains Cree culture, that this isn’t some failing of theirs. At some point, when they ask me in confusion yet again, “are we Cree?” I don’t want to feel like I’m somehow betraying my community if I say, “pretty much, yeah”**.
*The Stoney of Alexis and Paul Bands are Nakota Sioux, but have intermarried with the Cree to the extent that Cree is an ‘official’ language on those reserves, along with the Stoney language.
** I want to make it clear that I do not identify as Cree, because I think that is confusing to most. I am not First Nations, I do not have Status, and I am not from a Cree community. Nonetheless, my community has intermarried extensively with the Cree, and as I have been pointing out, shares many of the same traditions. Yup, it’s confusing all right…but I want to acknowledge where those traditions come from, just as I am able to identify where our language comes from. What I don’t want to do is pretend we somehow lived completely apart from our Cree relations, because that simply isn’t true; but neither is it true that we lived completely integrated with them.