Monday, April 26, 2010

Saltbaby Program: titled Lookit!

Nosy neighbours, The White Paper, Stephen Spielberg, The Indian Act, Queen Elizabeth II, your local retailer… these are only some of the people and things that have been trying to exercise the right to identify First Nations, Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people in this country since contact. Some of my nearest and dearest have been subjected to the seemingly tireless diatribes of the blow-hardy, who feel they are doing a service by proclaiming how one ought to “look” and “act” in order to claim one’s inner Indian.

Why does this happen? Let’s take the oft-debated nomenclature as a jumping off point. There have been no less than five different self-identifying terms employed, in this writing, at this mark. Are we “Indian”, “Native”, “Aboriginal” or what? Why so many terms for a people?

One obvious reason behind the myriad labels is that English was never the language we used to identify ourselves. Languages hold concepts, and concepts get lost in translation. The naming of a nation in a language that is not their own will be a misnomer, regardless of best intentions. Make an effort to create an umbrella term for a multitude of nations with histories as varied and storied as any nation in continents abroad, and you will find it lacking.

Some of the terms that are applied to us are a result of constructs that were forced upon us by dominant society. The band and council system, for example, was not originally ours: it was created to make the seizing of land and the enforcement of the reserve system more efficient and orderly. A nation or tribe is made up of several bands.

“Nation” is employed largely as a reaction to the unsophisticated connotations that come along with the term “tribe”. “Tribe” implies an unformed societal organization, more in-keeping with the animal kingdom, whereas “Nation” is a term that a capitalist world not only understands, but values.

Multiple terms for a diverse range of peoples is a good indicator that we are, as a whole, seeking a way of evolving the lexicon as time progresses. Adhering to one term for an eternity is only possible for an extinct peoples; they do not continue, and so their self-identifying terms need not go through change.

Just as the verbiage adjusts to accommodate change, so must our understanding of who we are, how we move through the world, and what we look like.

The majority of Aboriginals in present-day Canada live an urban life. Expecting every Indian you meet to have a home rez and a status card is not only ignorant, it is laughably naïve. Failing to accept that an Indian can have a fair complexion and curly hair is a mistake that a simple thinker will make. By refusing to see the full spectrum of how a person can identify is to relegate the Indian to the museum. By denying the inherent complexity of the first peoples of the country where you live, you choose to stand on land without history.

History is the stories of what has been, as applicable to the people who inhabit the world today. Our First Nations communities are an inherent part of a larger society – a society that includes you. When that larger society insists on viewing its first peoples under a racist roster of stereotypes, that is larger society telling us that we are a dead culture. Without acknowledgement of – without embracing – our country’s diversity, we are cheating ourselves of our humanity. As our humanity is lessened, we are all in danger of becoming creatures of textbooks and dioramas, rather than living, breathing, ever-evolving peoples who take the streetcar alongside one another every day.