The other day my partner and I were on our way to see the Nutcracker ballet for the first time with our four daughters (two are mine, two are his). We walked by a discarded Christmas tree and a forgotten ornament caught my youngest daughter’s eye. She excitedly extricated it from the prickly branches and triumphantly displayed to us her new, golden apple. My partner exclaimed, “Kallistei!”
My beloved is a fan of Greek mythology, and the word sounded Greek, so I assumed there was a story behind the exclamation. I asked him to tell us the story, as the golden apple had so caught my daughter’s imagination. We road the bus to the theatre as he described the ancient beauty contest between three Goddesses that ended up starting the Trojan War.
I learned a bit about Greek myths in Grade 6 back in Alberta, where it was part of the curriculum. The stories fascinated me at the time, but I never learned the fine details. I had certainly never heard this story before, and it got me thinking yet again about all the things I don’t know. Things I often feel that I should know.
I’ll ruin my coming-of-age story a little to let you know that I’m basically over the whole “I’m an uneducated hick” feeling that has haunted me pretty much my whole life. When it creeps up now, I remind myself that I do indeed have a lot of knowledge. I have knowledge that is widely respected (gained from years of being educated in the Canadian system) and I have knowledge… that is rarely valued outside my culture. I know that last bit doesn’t sound too promising, but it’s not my problem. The people who do not value the kind of knowledge I have are the ones missing out.
Let me explain a little more.
There are certain standards set up in any society that help determine whether or not you are held in high esteem. The things you know, the way you speak, how you dress, who you associate with, what you do, and so on…all of these things are factors. Which factors are more important than others vary depending on the society and culture involved. This is stuff we all know at least intuitively. No one sends you a book of clear-cut etiquette for social advancement (not anymore), so you just sort of look at the people who have ‘made it’ and if you want to be one of them, you try to do what they do.
Canadian culture is no different. Some of the standards are explained clearly, such as how to write a ‘proper essay’. No talking about yourself, for example. Stay objective. Don’t bring in personal anecdotes. Thesis statement, arguments, conclusion. Clear! Concise! Correct! None of this, “my name is and I am from this community and this is my family and this is my experience and this is why I have this opinion.”
Some of the standards may be less obvious. Knowing anything about Christianity and understanding biblical references or allegory for example. If you don’t know these things, you aren’t going to notice them or understand them unless someone actively points them out to you. Which they might do in a study of English literature years later, leaving you with a red mark on your forehead where you’ve smacked yourself after figuring out that Narnia had a few little Christian undertones.
I’m not the only one who grew up not getting certain jokes, or understanding proper etiquette all the time, or understanding every literary reference tossed across my path. This is definitely not just a ‘native’ thing. It’s also a working class thing. It’s a rural thing. It’s a lot of things. There are many people in this country who don’t make the cut when it comes to meeting those standards I’m talking about, because they aren’t part of a certain socio-economic class.
But what do we get labelled when we don’t make that cut?
Uneducated. And in Canada, nothing says uneducated like looking/walking/talking like a native.
Feh, says I.
Uneducated doesn’t actually mean that you don’t know things, or that you lack skills. It means you don’t know the right things. It means that certain skills and knowledge are valued, and if you have those particular skills and knowledge, then you are educated. If you lack them, you aren’t part of the in-crowd. Unejumacated.
That this is patently silly is almost immediately obvious when you think about pretty much any situation you can find yourself in where the standard set of skills and knowledge don’t do you a lick of good. The specialised skills and knowledge held by a mechanic, for example, are much more valuable than a knowledge of iambic pentameter when your car is broken down and the zombies are shambling in your direction. “Well this is why we pay mechanics more than poets” you might say, and I’d agree, but mechanics don’t exactly have a social status that corresponds with their earnings, now do they?
I don’t want to give you the impression that I believe there is a list of things you ought to know that will bring you great success and wealth. That’s the kind of schtick favoured by self-help gurus, not urban Métis bloggers (who just turned 34 btw). But I do know that I have spent a lot of time feeling stupid because I couldn’t identify architecture by periods, or name classical composers, or immediately understand what the word ‘Job’ had to do with suffering aside from the immediately obvious.
Me, trying too hard.
I knew pretty early on that I was running way behind my non-native friends when it came to knowing stuff that was important. So I became a huge book-worm. I wanted to laugh at the jokes, I wanted to get the references, and engages in displays of cultural recognition so that I too could have appreciation heaped upon me.
I tried reading the Bible (snoozefest!) but that wasn’t super helpful or interesting, so I basically gave up on that until it came up again in a first year University course where I finally learned about the Reformation and the difference between Protestants and Catholics in a way that made some sense. How weird to realise that this was old news for everyone else!
I tried reading all the ‘classics’. I can’t really remember how I came up with that list, but while I was surprisingly entertained by French authors, delightfully disturbed by the Russians, and bored to tears by English authors who were supposedly awesome sauce, there were just so many things I wasn’t understanding. Like the references to Greek mythology and Christianity.
I expended a lot of effort to learn the right stuff that other people were picking up I don’t know where, but I never really seemed to catch up. Some of my knowledge would be super specialised in comparison (I’ve actually read the Communist Manifesto and the Rights of Man and a buttload of Plato which is not something I’ve found many people are familiar with other than in passing). Yet in other things I remain hilariously uneducated.
I like to learn things, so I keep at it. I don’t do it to fit in to Canadian culture anymore though. I go where my interests take me, and for a long time they took me to Latin America…but that’s another story.
Wait, you can’t weld? How uneducated!
When I was older and less insecure, I started realising that the skills and knowledge I value are not necessarily the skills and knowledge that are valued in a wider sense. In the ‘you’re going places’ sense. Yet I also saw that what is valued can change.
My father is a welder, and he also has a ticket in plumbing and pipefitting. He’s a construction worker, and has been my whole life. In the 80s, the economy in Alberta was crap, and finding work as a construction worker was damn hard. Sometimes he had to go out of town for extended periods of time to keep his family fed, and there were long stints on unemployment that kept us in cream-of-wheat the rest of the time. Being a construction worker was not exactly a high-prestige career and my dad always pushed us kids to go to school and do anything but construction work.
This story might seem implausible to those who didn’t live through the construction-industry bust in Alberta and who only know Fort Mac-style prosperity where being a construction worker actually gets you respect. But you whippersnappers listen up good, cuz granny here saw the shift happen!
Generally though, construction work is still not a particularly high-prestige career. That’s still reserved for people who become doctors, lawyers, and politicians. *snicker*
Bloody heck, you can’t take pictures of that!
Okay. For you non-religious types. Have you ever gone to church with a friend, and tried to figure out when you’re supposed to stand, and sit, and how to work that hymn book? Super awkward, right?
Well, the first time I realised that I knew stuff was when I took a friend to a powwow. She’d never been on a reserve before, much less to a powwow, and she had all these hilarious notions about how she was going to get beat up and robbed and she clung to me like she was drowning. It took so long to convince her that she would come out of it alive, that we got there pretty much as the Grand Entry was starting (I like to get there earlier so I can gorge on frybread if I can, but I had to wait).
So we got a space in the bleachers and the Grand Entry began. I imagine the next 20 minutes or so was about as fun for her as my limited church experiences have been for me.
She had NO idea when to stand up. She fidgeted non-stop while the Eagle Staff and the flags were set up. After every song she kept trying to sit down, and then looked around at all the people who kept standing, and would pop back up like a little jack-in-the-box. I had no idea why she was acting like that! She didn’t ask me any questions so I honestly didn’t realise that she had no idea what was going on, or what anything meant…and I wasn’t aware enough at the time to explain it to her.
Sometime after lunch, we were sitting there in the bleachers again when a dancer lost a feather. My friend had been snapping pictures the whole time, and it had made me feel a bit uneasy to be honest, but again I didn’t understand at the time that she just assumed that was cool. But when she raised her camera to take a photo of the ceremony to retrieve the feather, I grabbed her arm and hissed at her to put it away. I was super embarrassed! Didn’t she know you can’t photograph that!?
Then she argued with me about it! Right there! I was mortified! Why the heck had I brought this môniyaw with no manners with me!? I walked away from her, and she followed me, still certain she was going to get knifed if she were on her own.
We didn’t talk for a few hours after that, but then finally we wanted to clear the air, and being much calmer, I talked to her about it. Once I explained why I’d been upset, and once she explained to me how confused she’d felt the whole time, I realised that she was…uneducated in powwow protocol.
We went back the next day and this time I wasn’t embarrassed and uncomfortable to have her with me committing all sorts of cultural no-nos…I sat there and explained things to her and answered her questions and we had massive fun. And Indian tacos.
Speak Greek to me, and I’m going to whip out some Cree jokes!
My beloved and I have a very supportive yet teasing relationship. It’s rather Cree in that way, is how I like to think of it. We come from fairly different backgrounds, and he’s one of those people who can recognise a Mies van der Rohe (I literally just now found out this is how it’s spelled) and knows the difference between Baroque and Rococo, and gets all of those biblical references I miss. Yet he values the knowledge and skills I have, which are very different sometimes than his.
So when he teasingly pontificates about some European-based cultural reference I don’t get, I like to make cultural references/jokes which leave him stumped. Like what does a bad hunter wear? Dog pants! Ever sick!
No but really…when I take him to powwows, he asks me to explain things because he doesn’t want to make silly mistakes. When we meet Elders, he follows my lead. When he doesn’t get why saying “Hey Victor” over and over results in howls of laughter, he asks.
Like I said, I spoiled the ending.
The Nutcracker was a first for me. I’m familiar with most of the songs, and the general story has been redone in cartoon form enough that I wasn’t too surprised, but I am not someone who grew up going to symphonies and plays and ballets. I have learned some basic fancy schmancy production etiquette in my adult years so I wasn’t feeling uncomfortable. (I was taken aback by the way other cultures were exoticised and represented in the Chinese, Russian, Arabian, etc Dances. I’m just glad they didn’t decided to put an “Savage Indian” dance in there is all I’m saying.) Still, this was my first ballet. Kind of cool!
The Nutcracker and the golden apple reminded me that yes, in many ways I am still an outsider to Canadian culture. I have a hard time looking older people in the eyes. I have this thing about not using people’s names, but preferring titles or nicknames instead. I am really awful at ‘selling myself’ because I can’t stand bragging. If someone doesn’t praise me for something, then I’m not about to decide its praiseworthy material and do it myself.
On the other hand, I’ve come to realise that these differences are not bad. Our first-person location in the stories we tell and the information we present is valid, and useful, and is not worth discarding just so that we get taken ‘more seriously’. Our sense of community and kinship is not quaint or primitive or exotic…it IS, and it has meaning and value. My ‘accent’ is just fine, thanks. I may not know much about Odysseus (though I’m learning!), but I know about wîsahkecâhk!
You have to value your education before you can expect others to do the same. I want more of our people to value the knowledge and skills they have. I want our ‘Bush PhDs’ to get the recognition they deserve. In my lifetime I have seen things change…the knowledge I have used to be worse than worthless…it used to be socially damaging, guaranteed. Now, people actually seem willing to approach it with respect. That didn’t come out of the kindness of anyone’s heart. That came with the tenacity of our culture and our beliefs. We kept putting ourselves in our stories, locating ourselves in our territories and families, speaking our languages, participating in our ceremonies, speaking softly. So let’s keep doing it, with respect, and eventually all those people missing out on what we have to offer are going to come to their senses…and in the meantime we’re going to continue to grow stronger as peoples.