Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Response to Prof. Doomsday & Where are the Sheep?

Don't you just hate it when you put your heart and soul into writing something, only to have your computer crash before it saves or to have Blogger tell you it cannot complete your request and when you hit the 'Back' button it's gone?

Yeah, me too.

I was just reading the blog post 'The Mythological Indian' over on Where are the Sheep?, and it was totally provoking my thoughts. I started typing my comment, and I entered into one of those writing modes where the words just flow out of you and appear perfect on the page (you know, those ones that are impossible to recreate?).

Rather than slamming my head on the desk and declaring myself done for the day, I decided to pull up my socks and write my own blog post in response to Robert's.

One particular paragraph in 'The Mythological Indian' ignited a small fire within me:
It is true that the stripping away of language and culture has had a devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples that will continue to have repercussions for generations to come. It has had a negative effect on my family; I do not speak the language or practice much of the cultural traditions. I do not consider myself to be less than another Aboriginal person however. I know who I am, where I come from and I am still learning what I am capable of and where I might be able to take it, were I permitted the space and trust to do so.
I'll never forget the words of an Irish anthropology professor I had in my undergrad who was teaching a course on 'Aboriginal History in Canada' (or some variant of it). The day's lesson was on language, with an apocalyptic focus on Indigenous languages and their demise.

"It's a well-known fact and proven in history," he began (and you know professors always tell the truth), "that when a language dies, the culture and the people follow."

Never in my life had a single statement instilled so much fear in me!

Of course, me being maybe 21 at the time and him being a professor, I took his words as absolute fact (and, to top it off, he prefaced his statement by citing it as fact).

But these days, I'm beginning to wonder...

I understand the importance of our language. I am faced with it oftentimes when I ask my grandmother the meaning of a word in Algonquin and she pauses, squints her eyes closed for a strained moment, then answers me in a paragraph in English. There are so many cultural nuances contained in our languages that only the Elders understand. My grandmother speaks the old Algonquin, always the second term in the English-Algonquin dictionary, not the new one which I suspect is influenced by Ojibway.

I am fortunate enough to have opportunities to learn my language, if only I make the time to take advantage of them. But what if I don't? And what if my children don't? And my children's children? And then my community? Does that mean we will cease to exist as Algonquin, as Anishinabe?

I hope NOT!

If we acknowledge that our people and our cultures are not static and capable of "death"; if we understand that our people and our cultures will grow, transform and flourish; if we use the English (or French or other) language in our own ways; if we take so-called "western" concepts and traditions, and meld them with our own to form something new...

...if we do all of that, then we will always be here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

We laughed

I knew all along I was going to vote.

Since turning 18 I've voted in two federal elections, making this my third.

I understand that there are two camps of First Nations thinking when it comes to voting in Canadian federal elections: pro-vote vs. anti-vote.

But after reading Martha Troian's post at Media Indigena, which contains an interview with Taiaiake Alfred, a highly respected Mohawk scholar (at least in my purview), on why Indigenous nations shouldn't vote, and after seeing well made videos espousing why we should vote, I am left with more questions than answers.

Is it possible to change a colonial institution from the inside?

Does it mean that "I am Canadian" if I vote in a federal election?

Would not voting improve anything for our people?

If I don't vote, what should I do instead to be heard by the country that, for better or worse, currently makes decisions that affect me as an Anishinabekwe?

On a theoretical plane, I totally understand the many reasons not to vote. If we want to be in a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada, we should not vote for their leader. Their leader should neither represent us nor make any of our decisions. But regardless of the fact that I've never really considered the Prime Minister to represent me, that he makes fiscal and ideological decisions that affect me is an inescapable fact.

What's more, a part of me wants to ignore the vote simply out of spite. Did you know that First Nations (or "Status Indians") were the last racialized group to "receive the right" to vote (that's my sarcastic tone, FYI) in Canada? We "got" the vote in 1960.

In 2010 I was working at a national Aboriginal organization. I was sitting at my desk one day, when my director--cheerful, intelligent, feisty, and non-Native--popped her head into my office and requested a mini-meeting. The six of us "subordinates" dragged our chairs into her large office, not knowing what to expect, but accustomed to these mini-meetings.

"So this year, our organization is being invited to speak in parliament to celebrate 50 years since the First Nations right to vote," she says, slightly upbeat, but not overly excited. "Does anyone have ideas for speaking points?"

We asked about some of the details of the event, brainstormed a few points, then one of my co-workers, blunt and hilarious, spoke up.

"Can I make a request?" she asked, and everyone knew there was no denying her. "Can we not celebrate the fact that the colonial institution which denied us the vote finally 'granted' it in the '60s?" (Okay, so maybe those weren't her exact words--hers were actually much more poignant.)

And the room roared with laughter. It's so true!

Many Canadians don't know that First Nations couldn't vote until 1960 without giving up their identity as Native peoples. Instead, they read headlines like 'Elections Canada marks 50 years of voting rights for all First Nations members', and think this is a reason for First Nations and Canadians to jump for joy.

I hate to break it to you, Canada: it's not.

- - -

I am writing the second half of this post on May 3rd, 2011. I have an emotional, electoral hangover.

Quebec amazed the country by completely reversing power within left wing. Both of my ridings (and yes, I have two) saw huge gains for the NDP. Back home in my community, Kitigan Zibi, a relative unknown karate teacher ousted the former Foreign Affairs Minister; and in my current residence across from the Odawa River, the NDP broke through the 100+ year Liberal stronghold. But, of course, it's difficult to celebrate these victories when many First Nations' worst nightmare has come to light.

So, what can I do to keep myself from falling into a deep, dark place, worried about the treatment of my people by the feds over the next four years? Well, my first instinct is to hole up on my couch with a pint of ice cream (forget Skinny Chicks!) and pop in a '30 Rock' DVD. Then the next one. And the one after that...

But then I remember our very Native response to the idea of "celebrating" our right to vote.

We laughed.