“I saw the sniffers on Main Street and asked ‘are these my people?’”
Colleen Simard is speaking to a class of journalists about finding herself and her Aboriginal culture. She had trouble understanding where she was going when she didn’t know where she’d come from.
“There isn’t enough Aboriginal stories out there,” says Simard, who is herself a graduate of the Creative Communications program at Red River College and pens an “Ask an Indian” column.
What Simard suggests is a disconnect between the Aboriginal representations we see in the media – mainly focused on crime and various abuses – and the actual culture. In a circle of students, she shared a beautiful smudge ritual with the group and we each poured the sage smoke over our bodies and thanked our creator.
I’ve never had the honour of experiencing such an amazing ritual, and it’s something most of the class hadn’t even heard of before.
The reason it was so beautiful is how organic it felt, not some stuffy made-for-TV spectacle, and Simard agrees: “these rituals come out for special events, but why not everyday?”
In many ways, this was exemplified by the 2010 Vancouver Olympics: in the video below, journalist Tim Lawrence talks about the Olympics’ use of the Inukshuk in its logo. It’s a symbol of welcoming and peace, and paired with the Aboriginal dancers in the opening ceremonies, promotes an image that all is balanced and inclusive in Canadian society. But accordingly to the video, none of Canada’s athletes are Aboriginal.
What I struggle with is why it is so hard for Canadian culture to provide room for Aboriginal culture. In many ways, this still stems from Residential Schools. While Aboriginal people are still healing from the legacy of trauma these institutions left on many, those behind the schools (for lack of a better word we’ll say Europeans) are also dealing with a legacy that needs to be accounted for.
The legacy of racism and ignorance.
The ignorance part is an easy one to skip over. Perceptions of Aboriginal culture are often formed in very black and white terms. For example, I always assumed most reserves are horrible and that indigenous communities don’t like it there. Why I thought this, I’m not sure – all the CBC specials and newspaper reports on squalid conditions perhaps; but then Simard told me this:
“Reserves aren’t all bad – it gives a place for our community, and it insulates us from racism.”
I couldn’t understand the last part; are we just supposed on rest on our laurels and say racism toward the indigenous can’t be fixed, let’s all stay apart? Or is it that these communities are enriching because it’s a collection of people rejoicing in their culture, a culture torn at the seams by mandated assimilation.
It was not until I went up to the Northwest Territories to the town of Gameti – a place of 300 indigenous people, I noticed a difference between the Aboriginal people of the north, and those I see in Winnipeg. These are proud people, whose culture hangs on their sleeve and they are so happy to share with you experiences and stories without hesitation.
In this town, people share a balance of westernized lifestyle, driving large trucks and wearing non-traditional clothing. But they still share a distinct connection to their roots, and none more so than the Canadian Rangers, who trap animals, cut wood and cook animals the way people living on the land have been doing for centuries.
One Elder Ranger I met, Joe Black, is 78 and his joy was passing on his teaching to young males and females in the community. He was living – “very happy” he told me – on the land just like he had from the time he was born in 1935 to when he bought a house in the 80′s.
The children I met have the same hopes and dreams as any child, and no one there to undercut these dreams. I spoke with people at the health clinic and the stereotypical “Aboriginal problems” experienced in the south aren’t pervasive: alcoholism, suicide, unemployment. People work in industry or by selling furs.
In so many ways Gameti is an untouched gem, and that’s why it works.
This is not a usual blog post, I don’t have some conclusion I feel strongly about. As an immigrant Canadian, I love seeing all cultures more than applauded, accepted. And not just making room for, but including this in the country we share. If Gameti is any indication, cultural pride promotes healthy people in spirit and mind, it promotes opportunities – the kind where children of any origin can have dreams of being in the Olympics – and it promotes understanding: something one blog post can only begin to chip at.