The “that isn’t traditional” meme.

Dude.  Say it with me.  Traditions aren’t technology-dependent.

I feel like I’ve said this so often, it should be indelibly emblazoned on the mind of every person who has ever lived, but the sad fact of my limited vocal reach requires me to repeat myself, and really it’s okay.  I like exploring this concept.

Image from artist Terrance Houle. A ‘traditional’ hunter-gatherer?

What the heck am I talking about, you ask?  As always, I’m talking about misconceptions.  Some of them are even funny!

Often they’re hunting-related.

“That wasn’t a traditional hunt, they used high-powered rifles, not bows and arrows!”

“And they should have dragged the deer home with their teeth too, right?”

“Well I guess if that’s the tradition…”

Sometimes they’re communication-related.

“Some traditional Indian she is, with her Facebook and iPhone.”

“You’re going to say something about smoke signals, right?”

“Well you know, however you guys traditionally used to talk to each other…sure…”

Often they are related to living conditions:

“Oh a house hey, real traditional that!  How do you like all that non-traditional running water anyway?”

“You mean the non-potable water that isn’t safe to drink?  Oh man I hate that stuff.”

“You know what I meant…”

Aaaaaand there are plenty of other examples. I am always amazed how much people seem to know about our traditions.  You know, the next time you’re not sure about a traditional practice, I suggest skipping the whole thing with the Elders.  I bet you could zip on over to the internet and get the real scoop in nanoseconds!  Try the National Post comments section…it’s full of ancient wisdom!

Okay but for serious.

The idea that indigenous traditions require us to only use technologies that were available to us pre-Contact, or more generously just-a-bit post-Contact, is silly. If silly was all we were dealing with, then I’d let it be.  But silly ends up translating into policy, and I have to take that seriously.  I’ll give you an example.

Back in 2004, King Ralph signed an Interim Métis Harvesting Agreement (IMHA) with the Métis Nation of Alberta.  Now, this former Premier of Alberta didn’t always act with class, but this was a pretty ground-breaking agreement.  If you are unaware of this, until the Powley decision in 2003, neither the federal nor provincial governments really recognised a Métis right to hunt.  Powley was applied pretty narrowly, so it still did not grant province-wide hunting rights, but the IMHA was the first step towards doing exactly that.  Sort of.  (Oh please don’t make me go into the many problems with having a provincially legislated framework for the exercise of inherent aboriginal rights…it’s late and I just want to pretend it’s simple, okay?)

Before you anticipate the swelling music of victory, you should know that the IMHA was scrapped once Steady Eddy took over, and things have gone back to the ‘traditional’ tale of Métis hunters having to fight their cases out individually (and at much greater expense to the taxpayer than a negotiated agreement) in the Courts.

This is how a REAL native fishes!

Back to the point.  Although the IMHA seemed like a better way to approach the issue than forcing us into the Courts every time we wanted to assert our right to hunt, there were some silly interpretations being applied, based on notions of ‘what is traditional’.

The IMHA mentioned fishing with nets specifically.  Some Métis were being ticketed for fishing with a rod and reel instead of the more ‘traditional’ gill nets.

That sound you’re probably not hearing, is me.  Rolling my eyes.

A lot of the men from my community were traditional fishers.  They fished back when you could actually eat what you caught from Lac Ste. Anne.  You can bet that as the technology improved, they were right there, using it.  I’m not talking about camping out for a week to get the new iRod, and they kept the know-how so that when all they had were the materials at hand, they weren’t left without a way to fish…but the point wasn’t what they were fishing with, it was that they were catching fish.

The arbitrary decision to say, “That isn’t a traditional practice if you’re using ‘new’ technology” freezes us in time, and for no good purpose.  It would be like me telling you that you don’t get to travel anywhere if you’re not doing it in a horse-and-buggy.  That unless you wear your powdered wig, you don’t get to dance if you wanna, so just leave your friends behind.

It would be like me saying that your legal system is invalid, because you no longer have the Courts of Chancery and I have decided that only your pre-1740 way of life is ‘traditional’.

Just look at Canadian property law, if you’d like a sense of how you can be both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’.  The rules governing what you can do with your land, what rights you have in your land, and who you can pass it along to, are all based in feudal notions of ownership.  I’m a geek, so I think that history is actually pretty fascinating, but I’m not going to insist that you ditch computers and start administering the Torrens system via clerks with quills and ink bottles and reinstate the feudal system in the meantime. That would be stupid.

I’m not going to belabour the frozen in time approach and how freaking bizarre it is to read people telling us not to haul game home in pick-up trucks, or use kitchen appliances to make frybread or use gasoline in our motorboats, because once you think about it, the weirdness should be self-evident.  I do want you to think about this conversation the next time you think to yourself, “oh hey that can’t be traditional because they used *insert some new technology*”.

We are just as capable of adapting to new technology and using it according to traditional beliefs and philosophies as you are.  It’d be cool if you thought of a few ways in which your culture has used new technologies in a traditional way so you really get what I’m saying here.

And if you’re still sticking to the whole, ‘Nope,  you’ve got to do it the way your ancestors did way back when’, then I’d like you to name a specific date after which any technological innovation renders our traditions invalid.  Then we can both agree that from now on, all peoples living in Canada will only be allowed to do things they way they did it before that date, and we’ll see how that works, okay?

Hey! Gimme back my traditional iPhone case, you!

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Categories: Aboriginal law, Culture, Injustice, Lac Ste. Anne, Representation of natives

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29 Responses to The “that isn’t traditional” meme.


  1. I LOVE this blog! I had a couple of really good chuckles, the iRod piece is hilarious! It is so bizarre that there is a consistent belief today by some people who think that traditions have to be frozen in time to be ‘authentic’… while we White folks ‘evolve’ (lets NOT go there!) kind of like expecting an Indigenous person to go to work in canoe today.
    Wow….and then being forced to negotiate with land thieves?! I just found out today that in the 1860’s 807,690 acres of land where taken from the Hulquminum people on Vancouver Island! WOW- How many football fields is that anyway? I can’t even wrap my head around how BIG that is?! 80% of their land taken away, no treaty… NOTHING! Think about it! Then they want you to sit down and negotiate AND pay your own legal fees… after they have used up all the resources.
    That is just messed up!!

  2. Yvette says:

    I have a question about, the now social norm (at least in BC) of territorial acknowledgement. I think I understand territorial acknowledgement by speakers to verbalize that they know they are on occupied First Nations’ lands. I am not sure I understand the purpose of acknowledging that you are on a First Nation’s land when you are invited to their home lands (an unoccupied part) as a guest. It seems to be that this is an inappropriate, even inept, gesture, as a guest to someone’s home you one would not say I see that this is your home.

    From this perspective, it seems that the lip-service paid to ‘acknowledgement statements’ of being on occupied land has taken on a life of its own and/or has become a platitude rather than a conscious, considered, relevant, respectful gesture.

    From the other perspective, an ‘acknowledgement statement,’ if said while on a First Nation’s land (an unoccupied portion) is ‘a statement of political alliance’ that recognizes (this might be a stretch: and disagrees with) the illegitimate occupation of their lands.

    Your thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated- Yvette

    • I get the sense that you’re talking about non-native people acknowledging the territory they are on, correct? And you are questioning this practice, which is definitely becoming more common.

      Okay well, first I’d like to point out that the practice of acknowledging the territory you are on is a legitimate indigenous tradition. Territorial boundaries were, contrary to popular belief, taken pretty seriously. Within each aboriginal nation, there are complex rules governing how a territory can be entered, who is responsible for what, and what you owe your hosts as an outsider. Some groups who had a lot of contact with one another became pretty ‘fluent’ in those requirements, so when entering another nation’s territory, they would follow that nation’s protocol, and vice versa. This was not just a form of exchanging pleasantries…’border’ disputes could become extremely heated and end in full out hostilities otherwise.

      When you are a guest in someone else’s home, you do generally thank them for having you, no? You may not say, “I am in your home”, but the sentiment is similar. Whatever culture you are from, there are specific protocols about what it means to be a host, and what it means to be a guest. A very simplified form of these protocols is to acknowledge whose territory you are on, as a way of thanking your hosts for their generosity and as a way to acknowledge you recognise that you are bound by certain obligations as a guest.

      You will often hear native people state which territory they are from, and if they are in another nation’s territory they will acknowledge this too. I think that non-natives have started to pick up on this practice and I certainly don’t see it as a bad thing. I don’t tend to hear the term ‘occupied’ added in to those acknowledgements, in general it’s just ‘this is traditional Mohawk/Cree/Anishinabe/etc territory’.

      A lot of people still are not aware of the fact of indigenous territory, and do not know whose land they are on. I think these acknowledgements are important in an educational sense, and as a way of continuing to respect traditional notions of territorial respect.

      Is it sometimes just a platitude, with no deeper meaning for the people saying it? Sure. I have no doubt that is true in some cases. Nonetheless, it’s a good start.

      • Yvette says:

        Your right, the term ‘occupied’ was only used to distinguish between the physical environments in which a ‘territorial acknowledgement’ would take place. Any suggestions on how one would move beyond a good start toward becoming ‘fluent’ in the requirements of entering a First Nation’s territory?

        Thank you for your response- Yvette

        • Asking the people whose territory you are on would be the best start. In most situations it’s probably appropriate just to be aware that you are on a particular nation’s territory. The more formal protocols tend to be reserved for more formal situations…and few non-natives are going to find themselves in those situations.

  3. memebot says:

    “We are just as capable of adapting to new technology and using it according to traditional beliefs and philosophies as you are.” In some cases, we were even BETTER with introduced technologies than the Europeans were….GASP, blasphemy! Rifles (sharpshooters) and horses (no saddle!) immediately come to mind. Our resourcefulness and ability to absorb and adapt just make the ongoing policies of assimilation seem even more absurd than they already are.

    Oh, LOL. Accidental alliteration, how amusing!

    • I didn’t want to brag… 😀

      Accidental alliteration makes me giggle too!

    • I think another issue is the belief in ‘cultural purity’ which also isn’t analysed enough. Hello…who introduced Europeans to corn? Tomatoes? Potatoes, chocolate, tobacco? Cultures trade and share and change and integrate and this is just how it is. Requiring us to be ‘pure’ ignores all the cultural diffusion that happened between distinct aboriginal nations before Contact, and ignores how much cultural bleeding has influenced everyone’s culture. A distinct double standard. Very useful when trying to deny aboriginal rights, but not a particularly cogent argument.

      • memebot says:

        If everyone but Muslims stop using Algebra or everyone but Chinese stop using gunpowder, I might consider giving up any “non-traditional” technologies!

        • Yup, that was the source of my challenge to pick a date. We’ll just let everything before then stand, cultural sharing ignored, but everything developed after that gets tossed out. Like ‘survivor’ for cultural purists.

  4. Arlene says:

    When it comes to land, there is no shortage of stories about human insanity. What I worry about is Stephen Harper and his oil-driven agenda. He seems to have the Supreme Court stacked and this doesn’t bode well for First Nations rights. As Elizabeth May noted, ‘aboriginal communities’ seems to be the Conservatives preferred term as it lessens the authority of treaty rights.

    • As much as I love a good Harper bash, let’s not forget that he hardly invented ‘screwing First Nations over’. After all, Jean Chretien wrote the White Paper way back when. I think colonialism is pretty much party independent in this country, sadly enough.

  5. Brock says:

    I say bring back free and common socage! And the fee tail!

  6. KBelle says:

    Loved this post!!!

    I hate it when people refuse to acknowlegde that cultures evolve and change over time, well at least they refuse to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples culture evolves. As an anthropology student this was one of my favourite topics, “the indigenization of modernity” captures this thought. Instead of viewing modern culture as eroding “traditional” cultures by people incorporating modern technology into their lives, we can see this as people incorporating aspects of modernity that work for them. People are not static, therefore culture is not static.

  7. Emo says:

    Although the scope of the article is limited, I’m inclined to add that traditionalism and indeed “revivalism” are also legitimate impulses in the 21st century. I have seen a wild elephant, but I’ve never seen a wild Buffalo. Would it be possible to set aside some land so that there are some wild buffalo? Yes. Conversely, would it be possible to return to an economy where 90% of the population is supported by killing the buffalo? No, but the significance of the former shouldn’t be invalidated by the impossibility of the latter.

    I haven’t met anyone who wanted to give up the convenience of modern dentistry (nor, in your case, modern optometry)… but there’s a legitimate impulse to “revive” (or, perhaps, re-enact) something from a bygone era for a few days out of the year –and, frankly, plenty of white people do this with a minimalistic canoe trip once in a while. Inevitably, circumstances demonstrate that the simulacrum is never the real thing: if you knock your teeth out during your authentic recreation of a canoe trip ca. 1740, you’ll still go to a 21st century dentist to get them knocked back in after the fact (mutatis mutandis). However, you can insist on using buckskin instead of Gore-Tex during such a canoe trip, for a few days, just to increase the difficulty, and just to get a sense of what the difficulties once were.

    The revivalist impulse runs deep amongst religious communities of a variety of cultures: there’s a spectrum of responses to technology even amongst Mennonites, but, again, I haven’t heard of any who prefer 18th century dentistry to 21st century dentistry when push comes to shove.

    My own engagement with language revival is purely forward-looking: I’m not involved in cultural revivalism, and I never will be. However, this very fact draws my attention, again and again, to the extent to which all of the Cree I meet (including very young people) absolutely assume (and assert) that language revival must be linked to cultural revival –and, I dare say, they are really thinking of cultural revival in terms of a fairly strict “re-enactment”, in most cases. Nobody whom I have met, and nothing I’ve ever read on paper, presents Cree language or identity in terms of futurity –it has been exclusively thought of in terms of re-enactment of some aspect of an irretrievable past.

  8. A great post. It is funny (not really) that Nations are allowed to develop and evolve except when it comes to Native people. Court rulings (for Natives) are based on “way back when”, and the type of commerce, land use, etc. that was going on pre-contact. Even our own people are hard on ourselves, that is crazy. I touch on some on Emo’s argument in this post http://rightojibwe.blogspot.com/2012/01/so-you-want-to-be-traditional-indian.html
    I thought your post was done well, had the right amount of humour/sarcasm/ sardonicism and pure fun. miigwech.

    • I posted this on HuffPo too, where I have made the solemn vow to never respond to the comments made there, (I’m not able to avoid thinking about them however), and someone said basically, “Well if you want to make arguments based on tradition then that’s the standard you have to live up to.” Except we aren’t the ones making those arguments…the very narrow interpretations open to us through Canadian courts are nowhere near under our control. We do not define the boxes we are forced to inhabit, and this is something that is clearly lost on a great many people.

      • bruce mcgoose says:

        Read what you just posted… The huffpost article headline is : “Newsflash: I Can Use an iPhone and Still Follow Indigenous Tradition” You are the one making those arguments….. you just did by giving your article that headline.. The only sensible solution is whatever tools and practices were used on the day of that particular treaty signing, is what should be used today.

        Otherwise, we have no limits. As our technology improves, our ability to increase our success (whether it be fishing, hunting, or what have you) also comes with responsibility. There would be nothing stopping indians from dragging the waters of every lake all year-round until there is no fish left for anyone.

        We all know how responsible and successful the natives have been when left with no supervision. What we all need to do is grow-up, own our mistakes and actually work toward a common vision of our future. Enough with the handouts and begging. Continue down that road and nothing will ever change.

        • Actually, I did not choose that headline, Huffington Post did. The headline I chose is visible in the same article which I posted here first. A bit of a quibble.

          No. We are not making arguments based on frozen-in-time approaches to tradition. The Canadian courts are.

          Once more, traditions are not technology dependent.

          If it is your tradition to engage in resource extraction without caring how negatively it impacts the flora and fauna, or the communities close to this development, then the way in which you approach resource extraction is not going to change just because the technology allows you to do it quicker, bigger, uglier. And that is indeed the approach taken in many large-scale resource extraction developments by non-natives in Canada.

          To then suggest that aboriginal people would do the same if we had the opportunity is flawed on two levels:

          1) it creates a double standard, where such rampant disregard for the impacts of large-scale development is ‘okay’ when it is done by non-natives, but somehow indigenous people MUST NOT BE ALLOWED to do the same and;

          2) It assumes that all people have the same values (putting development over environmental and human impact).

          Both of which are deeply colonialist approaches.

          “We” do not have “no limits”. Our traditions impose limits. Your traditions may not, but your traditions are not ours. If your traditions fail you in this regard, then it is time to make new traditions which ‘prevent this sort of thing’ without pretending that indigenous people are in any way responsible for the rampant environmental degradation that Canadians are all faced with today.

          As for your inflammatory statement, “We all know how responsible and successful the natives have been when left with no supervision…” actually no, you don’t. Because the time when we ran our own affairs without interference is long past, nor were those years marked by the kind of impact you allude to. You demonstrate a deep ignorance of our (and your) history in this regard. Since the imposition of the Indian Act in 1876, there has not been a time when ‘natives have been left with no supervision’. Quite the opposite in fact.

          I suggest for more information on that issue, you read the following:

          The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: The Indian Act

          – this will provide you with a detailed history of the Indian Act, as well as information on how restrictive Indian Act measures still very much control nearly all facets of life for First Nations.

          Indian Status
          – this is a further explanation on how ‘who is Indian’ is heavily restricted via legislation and policy as well.

          Auditor General Report on First Nations reporting burden

          – this report gives you detailed information on just how accountable First Nations are, and just what kind of reporting burden they face compared to any other segment of Canadian society.

          All of these sources refute your claim of lack of supervision.

          If you wish to have your comments posted again, and continue to make the kinds of inflammatory statements you have (which have been refuted many times in my articles so far, so please don’t think you haven’t been given ample opportunity to correct your misconceptions), then this will only happen on two conditions:

          1) You provide evidence for your claims.
          2) You approach the topic in a respectful manner. That means you make a real attempt to engage in dialogue, you do not just post-and-run.

          This is not HuffPo, and I am not here to provide you with a platform from which to rant, unchallenged, or not held up to any standard of evidence.

  9. Bil says:

    I’m a late follower of your post, somewhat not well-versed, and only so much informed, but reading this great post, I recall a few things I took away from Cherokee history about 15 years ago or so when I found (as a Seattleite visiting family in Kanas just how much I was Cherokee, 1/16 or so, more or less, hard to tell), and read a Cherokee history book (unfortunately it wasn’t where I thought it was on my book shelf so I can’t cite the title or author, but it was through the Cherokee University press, as I recall). My biggest takeaways were that on first contact the Cherokee Chiefs united with the Brittish King, and after a quick novelty tour of Europe for some of the Chiefs, allied with the King. So when the American Revolution broke out, they followed their word and fought on the side if England, but soon (or eventually) realized the “winds of change” and sided with the new US goverment, and soon adopted their own constitution, closely based on the US constitution. And the biggest fact I hold onto is that the Cherokee Nation quickly adopted the new form of goverment and had it in place and working so quickly that they had an erected and active Superme Court in what would be the state of Georgia 20 years before the state of Georgia did. They adapted the government form so quickly and naturally, and yet were still, playing by the same rules, were led step by betraying step (playing by the same rules) to the Trail of Tears . . .
    Thanks for the insightful post!

  10. bruce mcgoose says:

    Edit:

    Nope. Your arguments consist of recycled crap I’ve already addressed in other posts (First Nations Taxation for one). I’m not wasting more time specifically reiterating that information when you are already more than free to read it.

  11. so sad says:

    It seems when someone challenges you on your misinformation they get ignored. That is probably why its so hard to progress through difficult times. It would be a sad day for me if I only involved myself with people who agree with me. Open your mind to new ideas, your word is not the “be all end all”, far from it. I have been going through older posts on this site and whenever someone challenges your bullshit, you shut them down.

    That is all. I will spend my energy elsewhere.

    • This is the poster also known as “bruce mcgoose”, who has been banned from posting on this site. I’d like to point out that I have repeatedly stated I will not provide a platform for unapologetic racism and accusations. When I edit out that sort of behaviour after a warning, there is almost always a follow-up accusing me of hypocrisy, racism, ignorance, closed-mindedness, etc. It’s formulaic.

      Except these people are not presenting new ideas, or fresh perspectives. They aren’t even reading the material I direct them to which often directly refutes their various claims (hur hur Indians don’t pay taxes, are all lazy bums, just want handouts, etc). No, they regurgitate mainstream ignorance and want to be patted on the back for it, and worse, believe they have some sort of right to have their oh-so-important words heard. The definition of entitlement.

      The related accusation of course is that I only allow people who agree with me to post, which is patently false. I have only had to ban six posters in total for their repeated refusal to engage in any material but their own beliefs on the matter. Once more, it is not my job, or the job of any native person to have people hurl racist stereotypes at them, and then out of the kindness of our hearts deconstruct all of that for the other (hostile) person.

      We’re not mama penguins folks. Chew your own food.

      It’s a little much to whine about how really, it’s just that I don’t agree with them, and not that they are engaged in racist accusations as well as personal ones. I edited out this poster’s comments previous to this because that is all they were. Racist stereotypes presented belligerently as fact or ‘a different perspective’, and internet psychology in the form of personal attacks on me. It’s a common tactic.

      My ‘bullshit’ is indeed what this blog is about. This blog is for other native people, and for people who are willing to challenge the stereotypes that Canada has done such an excellent job of perpetuating. That work is not easy, and I don’t expect people to come here with it all figured out. I’m willing to put up with a lot of ignorance, if people show a willingness to engage in a respectful dialogue. But I will not waste my time on belligerent and unapologetic racists who claim that failing to address their claims yet again, special just for them, is somehow my job.

      Divergent opinions are welcome, but if you want to be an ass, do it elsewhere.

      ekosi

      • Yvette says:

        âpihtawikosisân,

        These regurgitated racial conceptions offer a window into how susceptible humans can be to the ideas embedded propaganda. Perhaps in self-defense, I have come to see the absurd and ridiculous in it. While observing these rants I sometimes view it like a Monty Python skit. I note to myself the marvel of sincerity, confidence, and determination people have when delivering the ‘script’. Also, while watching such a performance, the intellect in me stands in awe of the thorough job the dissemination of this material in our society achieves in its recipients. Sadly though, it seems to me everyone that although not everyone ‘knows’ that they are delivering lines to a script, everyone is an a possible understudy able delivery the script if they choose. Perhaps, the next time I am given the opportunity, I will play understudy. I will halt the performance mid-scene to complete the dialogue as demonstration of its script characteristics. Maybe this will create new or at least interesting dialogue. If not, it at least will create interesting intellectual fodder.

        Yvette

        • Yvette says:

          I am not sure if you have posted this elsewhere. Although it is an American film it may be valuable to extend the conversation of settler indoctrination into the false representation of the historical dynamics of the relationship

          “How Hollywood Stereotyped Native Americans (2003). Permanent Loan copy used with
          permission of Dr. Peter C. Rollins, Oklahoma State University.”

  12. BobZurunkel says:

    My background is in archaeology and I’ve often pointed out to people that ancient peoples were always technological innovators, early adopters and “tech junkies” since the very beginning. What hunter wouldn’t want better tools to make their job easier? Exactly the same is true for every other aspect of life and human interaction.

    The briefest of glances at the archaeological record shows how quickly new technologies spread through cultures and how this process has continued right up to the present day. Using rifles in a modern day whale hunt is just plain smart. I have no doubt that ancient hunters would think so too.

    • Robert Columbia says:

      You are right, this has happened all throughout history and in all parts of the world. The Japanese people are famous for having swallowed a very large dose of Western culture over the past 200 or 300 years and transforming it into something that is not quite Western, but is not really traditional either. Look at the spread of writing across Africa and Eurasia. The alphabet diffused into various diverse cultures, changing to adapt to local languages and customs but retaining fundamental features.

      Who invented the bagpipes? Surely most people would say “The Scots” or possibly “The Irish”, but in fact Dio Chrysostom wrote about bagpiping in 1st Century Rome.

  13. randy says:

    Given that you’ve obviously pointed out that traditions aren’t technology-dependent or anything else that would make them “frozen in time”, according to your understanding, what kind of individual or communal lifestyle would most plains Cree, saulteaux and western metis peoples consider as “traditional” as opposed to non-traditional ? What are the parameters of determining whether someone is traditional or not? Is it a more factionalized kind of identity that would exclude being Christian for instance, or is it a more fluid kind of identification?

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