Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What means "political"?

I can't tell you exactly when it started to piss me off.

I considered myself someone who was proud to be political. Many of our respected leaders in Native communities are political people, Chiefs, though they didn't necessarily always think of themselves that way - and maybe some still don't. But lately, I've been wondering: what exactly does it mean to "be political"? And why, more and more increasingly, am I becoming annoyed when people use that term in relation to Native-ness?

A well-respected Elder from my community, Grandfather William Commanda (as well as other Elders), has said: "All First Nations people are born into politics." And I understand what he means. Our history of colonization, being born as a status or non-status Indian, being born a land beneficiary or treaty signatory, etc. are all examples of how an Anishinabe baby "is political."

But lately, I find myself wanting to respond: "Take your 'political' and shove it!"(And, for anyone who knows me IRL, I really am not that vulgar!)

A few examples...

Number one. I am taking a fiction writing workshop this summer at the university where I studied and work. It's great, tonnes of fun. I cannot make this statement with full certainty, but based on voluntary self-identification, I seem to be the only non-white person in my class. A lot of my writing could be classified as "Native literature."

We all take turns bringing stories or chapters of novels in for the class to critique. The story I brought was about a brother and sister who move to the city from the rez, play bingo, and deal with issues like poverty, racism and homelessness.

"A lot of well-known Native writers, like Sherman Alexie and Tomson Highway, have political undertones in their work," begins the writing workshop instructor in his introduction to my piece. "Mallory, what is your story about?"

Politics, apparently. "Ummm... I guess it's about siblings... A brother and sister who want to make something of themselves, and move off the rez and encounter, uh, barriers." I totally stumble all over my words.

The message to the class: Indian stories are political.

Number two. I'm watching my boyfriend R.J.'s baseball game Monday night. There's a bigger fan section than on most evenings, and it includes a player's father. It's a nice night, we're both in a good mood, and we begin making chitchat.

"Where are you from?" I ask.

"Out east, Newfoundland," he responds. "This is my first time visiting my son in Ottawa."

"That must be nice," I say flatly, unsure of where to go from here.

"Are you from Ottawa? Where do you work?"

"I'm from the Ottawa area. I grew up about an hour and a half outside of the city. I work at the university."

"Oh." He sounds impressed. "And what do you do there?"

"I work in the Aboriginal Centre."

A freighter truck passes on the road next to the baseball diamond and muffles his words. But I hear most of them: "...most universities have that... political thing, I guess."

His understanding of essential programs and services for Native students: political.

I'm beginning to get the sense that being called "political" isn't such a great thing after all.

If "Native problems"--poverty, transitions, land claims, missing and murdered women, languages--are deemed political rather than, say, human rights issues, then your average Canadian doesn't need to worry, right? Not really, because it's a political issue to be dealt with by the politicians. It's not a human right that humans need to be concerned about and that should be immediately resolved.

I was at the Indigenous Feminisms Rock! talk show/concert a few weeks ago hosted by Jessica Yee and something she said really struck me: "I don't debate human rights, I just defend them." Isn't that what we should all be doing? As soon as an issue that relates to Indigenous peoples comes up, the "political" label is slapped onto it and it becomes a topic for debate. It's not a human rights issue, where there exists an absolute right or wrong, but a political issue where there is a lot of grey area.

Nowadays, whenever anyone says anything to me along the lines of "you are political," I cringe. Soon, after I work through this, I'll respond.


  1. My favorite is when people tell me that they don't like to get political in an attempt to shut down an uncomfortable conversation. A good way to move forward is to ask them what they mean. "What do you mean political?"

    Some of my favorite people say that they don't get political, and over a series of conversations they tell me it's because they feel like they don't know enough about politics. When something was labelled as political it was like a stop sign from the other person telling me that they didn't want to talk about the topic anymore. When we got to the place where we could throw out the word political and replace it with the idea that our job is to think of a better future and figure out how to get there. When we had thrown out the word "political" dialogue progressed.

    I've heard the saying "when you're born native, you're born political." I think everyone's political, however non-Aboriginal people have the luxury of never being forced to question the ongoing colonial reality that is Canada and their role in it.

  2. I really like the idea of replacing the word political, in order to move beyond the barrier the word creates for both Indigenous peoples and Canadians/settlers. Depending on who you're talking to the term "political" can have many connotations, including elite, distrustful, negative, etc.

    In conversation with our own people, I think we can say that we're not being "political," rather, we're "being mindful of future generations." I think that would be good dialogue.

    I think it's a bit more difficult to find an alternative term for "political" when speaking to settlers, particularly when talking about things they view as overtly political like land claims, traditional territory, self-government, etc. I'm sure there's one out there I just can't think of it.