The secret lives of Indians…

June is National Aboriginal History month here in Canada, and has been since 2009.  I only found out this year.  We’ve had National Aboriginal Day (June 21) for about 15 years now, but apparently we also have a whole month devoted to our culture and history.  Huh.  Who knew?

Who knew indeed.  Isn’t that the question, really?  Who here in Canada knows anything about aboriginal peoples at all?

I often get the sense that I live in two very distinct worlds.  That is a common refrain among native peoples…that experience of walking in two worlds.  Sakej Youngblood Henderson refers to it as being a ‘split-head’ and I think that is a good image.

There are few, if any, native people who are not all too familiar with non-aboriginal Canada.  After all, it is not our history and culture represented in the history books, in the schools, in the media.  We grow up learning about Canadian culture, which apparently does not include aboriginal cultures. So what do Canadians know about us?  You only need to look at how we have to struggle to reclaim knowledge of ourselves to understand how deep runs this exclusion.

I think about pow-wow season.  Every year when the weather gets warm, thousands of native peoples roam what is now Canada and the US, attending a variety of community events.  My home community, Lac Ste. Anne, welcomes thousands of native people during the annual Pilgrimage.  Some people travel there on foot from extraordinary distances.  People from ever corner of Canada and the US make their way to the shores of the lake each summer.  These annual movements are not new for us.  Our peoples have been making treks over hundreds, even thousands of kilometers each year since time immemorial.  The rivers were our highways.  Even our youngest children, not still on their mothers’ backs, were used to making long treks by foot.

Do non-aboriginal Canadians even know of this movement?  It has not been my experience that they do.  It happens in the unseen background.  A seasonal migration of truly epic proportions in a world that does not seem to be connected to the world of non-aboriginals.  A season of joy, of the renewal and strengthening of traditions and relationships.

Another damning report by the Auditor General has been released.  Like so many other reports saying the same (or worse), it has largely gone unnoticed.  The issues are as misunderstood as ever.  It may be common knowledge to most native people that our on-Reserve schools are massively underfunded in comparison to non-native schools, but the myth of First Nations ‘wealth and waste’ is a strong one in Canada.  Here is a fantastic piece on the issue, by the way, very clearly highlighting some of those stats.

Then you have the issue of potable water.  When I talk to non-native people about the widespread lack of safe drinking water on Reserve, they are shocked….as they should be.  These are not the conditions one expects to prevail in a so-called developed nation.  Yet they do.  I have no doubt that if even a few non-native communities faced temporary situations like what we find on so many Reserves, it would be a national emergency.  I don’t think anyone can seriously deny that probability.  This is an issue we have been dealing with for decades.  It’s another one of those realities we live with that goes completely unnoticed by the majority of Canadians.

I have to remind myself that people do not know this stuff.  They don’t know about the housing shortages and crowded conditions in substandard buildings.  They don’t know about the astronomical rates of suicide and the epidemic of diabetes.  They don’t know that there are more aboriginal children in foster care right now, than were removed from their families at the height of Residential Schooling. They don’t know about the issues facing native people who come into contact with the judicial system.  They don’t know about the Highway of Tears, or what a Starlight Tour is. *

We know.  We know it very, very well.  We don’t keep it quiet…our people fight endlessly to bring these conditions to the attention of policy makers and the general public.  There has never been a time where native people have stopped pushing, stopped fighting for better conditions.  That’s another thing that is not understood.  The average Canadian sees ‘native issues’ as being historical in nature, rather than ongoing.

I am not saying anything here that will surprise most native people.  In fact, I think we’re all a little sick of hearing about it.  That’s why it is so…jarring to once again meet someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue about any of it. Inquests.  Royal Commissions.  Reports by the Auditor General, the Federal Ombudsman…fine, ignore what aboriginal organisations have to say on the subject, but how can you ignore these findings of systemic racism, of a failure to live up to promises, of a damaged relationship.  How can you ignore these things when they are said by your own government?  By your own experts?

I honestly don’t know what else we can do.  There are people in our communities…so many people…who devote their entire lives to raising these issues and trying to get the message out.  I know we cannot become angry people.  I know we have to continue despite the heavy cloak of invisibility that is drawn over us.

All I can do is say please.  Please don’t feel that these issues are too complicated, or unimportant, or just self-inflicted internal problems.  You don’t have to become an expert.  But please focus.  Celebrate National Aboriginal History Month by taking the simple step of trying to see us.

We are here, we are not invisible.

*some of these links are pretty old, but the situation has not improved enough to warrant finding more up to date sources.

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Categories: Alienation, Culture, Injustice

0 Responses to The secret lives of Indians…


  1. I grew up white and largely ignorant of aboriginal issues in my home area of Northern Wisconsin. I mean, I knew aboriginal people were there (my area was one of the few places where aboriginal groups still had some of their own land), because of nasty racial conflicts between whites and aboriginals over spear-fishing treaty rights. But I didn’t really think much about these issues. As a young adult, I was directly hostile to aboriginal issues because of the way they were always couched in terms of ‘guilt’ and ‘multicultural’ touchy-feely stuff.

    I only changed my mind by coming around things backwards. I picked up a copy of Black Elk’s story, read a bunch of Menominee texts, and started to think about it, without anyone yelling at me and demanding anything. You have to understand – it’s very very hard to deconstruct yourself and re-understand the world you live in as the product of a very ugly, systematic genocide. As an American, I’ve had a lot of that to do.

    One of the mistakes aboriginal activists often make, when they try to get non-aboriginal support for initiatives, is that there’s no such thing as a ‘white’ person or a ‘white experience.’ We’re a very complex mishmash of people and experiences, just like aboriginal people (300+ languages in aboriginal North America, after all). Activists tend to over-generalize and paint with a broad brush, and they lose a lot of audience that way.

    For example, a very nice Cree guy I know recently tried to earnestly explain to 25 white people that he was going through a lot of hardship because he ‘only had 2 years of his university paid for’ and still had 2 years left. He was totally unaware that most white students that were listening to him were deep in debt, worked full-time jobs during the semester, and had not even contemplated the possibility that anybody would get full funding like that. He assumed that all the whites in the class somehow had their entire education paid for, and he was being left out in the cold – estranged from ‘white privilege.’

    When this kind of thing happens, unfortunately the audience is lost. People turn away. It’s unfortunate, because, as you point out, there’s a lot that needs to be said and a lot that needs to be learned.

    • I grew up largely ignorant of aboriginal issues too! In school I was taught only that if the French and English hadn’t shown up, native peoples would have killed each other off in a few more decades, so thank goodness they came when they did!

      Suicide, physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction, crime, poverty. These are the things I grew up aware of, but never in context. Smudging, ceremonies, stories…these things also I grew up aware of, but tinged with those negative aspects. So yes, becoming aware is a process, and it isn’t an easy or a quick one. I don’t think we can ever say, “alright I deconstructed it all, I’m done!” 😀

      Growing up in the Prairies, I was also aware of the way that the Irish, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Italians etc all had friction with one another, and stereotypes about one another that ran pretty deep. So I recognise that talking about ‘white people’ isn’t all that useful or accurate. I did it a lot when I was younger though. It was the way people talked, and I just used it. I try not to do it now. I think the discourse has shifted to ‘settlers’ now actually. But if ‘settlers’ just ends up being a nice way of saying ‘white people’, then it’s not actually that useful.

      The things is I think awareness has to come in stages. We make mistakes, we generalise, we assume things are simpler than they are, and then we grow. We have so much respect for our elders not just because we’re taught to…it’s because they know what you go through in your teens, your 20s, your 30s, and beyond. I think it’s okay for the kind of mistake you used as an example to be made. That person was at a certain place in their life where that made sense. We do what we can with the understanding we have at the time. I just need to learn to apply that to the ‘settlers’ a bit more too I think.

  2. Em0 says:

    To reply to the article (rather than Jeff’s reply) first…
    I did actually read the Auditor General’s report that you linked to. I could probably produce an article on it much lengthier than would be appropriate for this forum… however, to note just a few salient features…
    (1) Actual numbers are very much absent from the report, and it is pointedly vague as to where to get those numbers. What the report actually says about per capita funding for native education is that the current budget (of 1.8 billion CDN) is comparable to provincial budgets of education… but we don’t get any of the numbers, nor even a citation telling us what report we’re supposed to look to next. When you rake through the appendixes, you find that there are only two “Indian Affairs” (I.N.A.C.) reports that could be candidates.

    (2) The report itself complains about the paucity of hard numbers, the poor quality of “reporting” (that’s pol. sci. terminology for “people providing us with the numbers we need to write this report), and the vagueness of terms like “comparable” used to evaluate the numbers when they exist (e.g., is the per capita education budget for native education “comparable”… and even if it were, would that be good enough?).

    (3) An audit of this kind is, simply, derivative of other studies, and does not constitute original research. You could take the shortcomings of this report to put together a proposal for original research, and, quite likely, one branch of government of another would be delighted to stuff money in your pockets (or mine) to get out and do that research.

    (4) If you were to ask me, “given that you’ve done quantitative survey-based research and protracted fieldwork in the past… why don’t you do that?” (…not that anyone is asking…) my honest answer would be, “Because I don’t speak Cree yet”. Really, truly, I don’t want to be another white guy who has opinions about the Cree without speaking/reading/writing Cree (even if the fact of the matter is that a minority of people who are ethnically Cree can speak the language in the 21st century). However, there are very few people who do “palpable” impact-evaluation research (amongst the Cree or anywhere else) and I do think that someone could raise the level of the game for the government and the general public alike by measuring outcomes using the “3ie” standard (or any other internationally-valid standard, rather than muddling by like this rather pathetic auditor’s report). On the meaning of “3ie”, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_evaluation#Definitions_of_Impact_Evaluation

    Veering off-topic, and replying both to Jeff’s posting and some of the “asides” in the article…
    (5) With all that having been said… there is simply no point in taking the average person’s level of ignorance as the problem to be redressed. As individuals, we all stand mute and powerless before the cycloptic ignorance of the Canadian people. Yes, white people are painfully ignorant of the reality of life on the reservation; and, yes, (as Jeff has mentioned in reply) many people who live on the rez are ignorant of many aspects of life outside of the rez (for whites or anyone else) –and we’ve all got anecdotes about both.

    The solution isn’t to raise your fists against the multitudes who will never care, and who will never take an interest (no matter how easily accessible the information becomes…). Simply put, that isn’t how cultures survive: culture is neither created nor sustained through acts of political protest (no matter how needful such acts of protest, in the short term, may seem). One part of the solution is to create a small but dynamic population who are, in effect, the “custodian class” for Cree culture (i.e., including language and history).

    I’m not optimistic: I neither think that this self-selecting minority of people who protect, study and transmit the culture will be a majority of the Cree, nor a majority of Canada’s population as a whole. However, I am optimistic in the sense that the next 50 years is relatively promising compared to the era that is just now ending –i.e., when the Cree were largely under the dominion of Christian missionaries, and were ruled by overtly eugenic bureaucracy that sought to prevent them from reproducing, separated parents from their children, etc. etc.

    (6) In general, as I’ve written about elsewhere, I differ from Jeff in saying that guilt is a better reaction than none at all. Yeah, “white guilt” may seem like a joke, but it is better than “white indifference”. Yeah, putting up road-signs in Cree may seem like a joke (if almost nobody can read them), but (1) at least it reminds recently-arrived Chinese immigrants that the indigenous population exist (because, unlike the U.S.A., they didn’t have to write a history exam to prove that they knew the country’s history before getting citizenship!), and (2) many Canadian cities are now putting up road-signs in Chinese, to celebrate the supposed “multi-culturalism” of urban Canada.

    Guilt may not be an adequate response… but it is a response… and it is better than no response at all.

    I know a lot of Asian immigrants, and that’s why I choose them as an example; frankly, I think that it would be a step forward for them to even develop a form of “guilt” toward the indigenous population (i.e., “Asian guilt” vs. “white guilt”? There’s a PhD research topic!), because guilt at least indicates awareness and some kind of contrasting self-awareness.

    Personally, I neither want to be part of a mono-cultural colonial society, nor a multi-cultural colonial society. Both entail slow-motion genocide. French-English “bilingualism” itself entails slow-motion genocide (although it is pursued in the name of preserving cultural “diversity”… it is the diversity of two European colonial cultures).

    The status of the Cree in Canada is fundamentally different from that of Chinese immigrants (and so too for the Laokta, the Dene, etc. etc.). The results of “civil rights” struggles and “ethnic minority” discourse still fail to broach the problems that this raises –in everything from the legacy of the residential schools to the fact that a large part of the city of Toronto is illegally built on native-owned land (i.e. according to the Queen’s own treaties, etc.).

    I do think that the existence of such a “custodian class” poses a challenge to the aforementioned cultural and political assumptions; to sustain the parallelism, I think that, frankly, institutions and intellectuals who have dedicated themselves to preserving Chinese culture within Canada do also have far-reaching political and cultural impacts (simply by existing, even if the bulk of their efforts are directed within the Chinese community, etc. etc.). The act of “preserving” a culture is itself productive; in reality, culture is adapted and recreated even by the most “conservative” of such projects (and I’m sure that the Onion Lake curriculum is re-defining Cree language and culture in numerous ways, however subtle). However, I think that anyone who took an inventory of Chinese cultural centers (within Canada) and compared them to Cree cultural centers would be amazed at the difference in scope and scale.

    • I’m probably not going to be able to reply to all the points you’ve made, but I’d like to tell you that I was annoyed with your discussion about hard numbers and derivative studies. I agree with you, by the way. These reports are almost always so difficult to present as evidence to an audience that is used to picking apart sources. My annoyance is not with your questions really, it’s with the paucity of solid stats.

      I’ve had a lot of people involved in First Nations education, for example, discuss some of the funding shortfalls that Band schools face that are not faced by provincially funded non-native schools…but anecdotal evidence isn’t particularly compelling unfortunately. Ditto with the very confusing issue of who is responsible for ensuring potable water is provided on Reserve. Try explaining THAT to someone over dinner and having them come away with a clear understanding of what’s going on! Cripes, this isn’t easy stuff for anyone!

      I get annoyed with the burden of proof issue though. Holy shit folks, why do we have to explain to you minute detail by minute detail WHY our schools are so desperately underfunded or WHY we have had a lack of safe drinking water for decades!? Can’t we all just look at the situation and use some common sense and figure out that this is not a good situation? At that point, can’t we freaking fly in some volunteers that were slated to go to Africa and have them get down to tutoring/constructing distillation facilities?

      *sigh* I know it’s not that simple, but no matter how many reasons people throw up, I’ll never really accept that it can’t be that simple.

      Anyway, on the issue of a custodian class: I do think we have to keep on keeping on in the sense of not waiting for someone to figure out they’re screwing us around, but rather just trying our best to deal with it and make things better. But somehow, educating the wider society needs to be a priority for the wider society itself too. We can’t be the ones reaching out all the time, using up our meager resources on outreach instead of building ourselves up internally. The ironic thing is that the whole liberal discourse seems to support this, but the reality of it continues to marginalise our voices and our realities to nearly the same extent as assimilationist approaches did.

  3. Emo says:

    Well, about hard numbers… there’s a difference between dinner-table conversation and government policy. The scary thing here is that the governments (plural!) themselves don’t have the numbers… and so, obviously, it isn’t a criticism of you if I point out that this auditor’s report lacks numbers, and that it openly laments that it lacks the numbers. Naturally, most people who grow up watching television have a false assumption of the government’s omnipotence. It is humbling for everyone involved to realize upon whom (and upon what) the government relies to make these things knowable. In meteorology, you do have to pay someone to go out and measure the rainfall (even if that is just putting a plastic cup in a field and checking the level regularly). The lack of basic “reporting” mechanisms does create a vicious cycle, wherein lack of accountability makes it difficult to justify increasing budgets… and even more difficult to figure out what went wrong when the budget has been spent and it still seems that there isn’t enough money to complete the project. The auditor’s report complains that “Indian Affairs” (I.N.A.C.) had never even done the math to figure out their total budget for education until after the auditor demanded it. That does show a pretty fundamental lack of planning and co-ordination –but, absurdly enough, if you want to complain about the incompetence of “Indian Affairs” the only person you can take the complaint to (in our British colonial system of government) is John Duncan. Whereas the Rt. Hon. John Duncan is an elected politician… he certainly wasn’t elected by Canada’s indigenous people(s), and he certainly doesn’t have any education that would make him well-qualified to be the (de facto) dictator of “Indian Affairs”. His only university degree is in forestry (to my knowledge). (You’re probably better qualified than he is for the job!) So, when you’ve got an un-elected bureaucracy that’s theoretically “responsible to the people” via one man (who isn’t elected to that post… but merely elected as an MP for some white neighborhood)… this is what you get. “Indian Affairs” isn’t organized to get results, nor even to present numbers to its auditor that could be evaluated to show where and how it’s going wrong (or to what extent, etc.). One auditor’s report after another states “failure”, and lacks hard numbers, and nothing’s going to change… partly because John Duncan (or whoever takes his role next) doesn’t have to answer to a Cree constituency (nor a Lakota one, nor an Ojibwe one, etc. etc.). And, yeah, in a roundabout way, that really does answer the question of why your schools are so underfunded and why the drinking water isn’t safe to drink.

    • Well the problem we have with under-qualified Ministers assigned to portfolios they aren’t trained to manage is certainly a problem all Canadians have. Anyone at any level who has had to try to slog through the bureaucratic muddle finds themselves questioning the entire process and lamenting its inefficiencies. INAC is particularly bad for this, however, and I think it’s because in a way, it tries to create a microcosm of the Canadian state as only applied to (some, not all) aboriginal peoples. Yet it doesn’t have the resources or the know-how to do a decent job of it.

      That lack of hard numbers you mention is baffling. I agree that people are under the impression that the government is much more aware of what is going on than is truly the case. I think that applies, once more, to so much beyond just “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”. Working in the legal field, I’ve been absolutely staggered by the lack of oversight and ability to enforce even basic legislation (e.g. environmental controls). Lofty principles don’t translate to much when you’ve got no one manning the ship.

  4. Emo says:

    The issue of “water quality” on the rez came up in a Globe and Mail article, June 30th, 2011, p. L6, stating that currently 111 reservations are listed as having “water quality advisories” (i.e., official warnings against drinking the water, and/or requiring boiling of the water, or other precautions). That’s 111 out of “600-odd” reservations. (The total number of reservations never seems to be consistent from one source to the next… presumably because jurisdictions and definitions are inconsistent…) The author’s source is simply stated as “digging” through the Health Canada website. At any rate, that would be one in six. Does this mean that five out of six reservations actually do have potable water? Hard to say. Plenty of reservations are remote enough that this would seem to be reasonable to assume –but “remote” from human habitation almost always means you’re next door to some heavy industry or another in rural Canada (and watersheds carry pollution a long, long way, as is the case with the infamous Sydney [Nova Scotia] tar ponds, and the reservation(s) downstream).
    Of course, if nobody on the rez is sending in samples and performing lab tests, nobody knows.

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