In celebration of National Aboriginal Day, I wanted address culture and its continued relevance.
I have been asked “Why is First Nations culture is still relevant in modern society?”
I can’t forget because it’s part of my personal history. I am proud of my heritage because of my family that has worked so hard to perpetuate it. My grandfather. My great grandfather. My great great grandfather. I am so proud to be able to identify my great great grandpa’s carvings from the distinct compass points. I am proud that I have traditional music on my ipod that features my grandfather’s voice. I am proud of their achievements, innovations and contributions. I am proud that I come from artists, dancers and people who protect culture. I am still learning and discovering about my culture and language. It’s so exciting and vibrant to me, which is why I don’t understand why it is categorized as a relic.
Language and culture are so closely linked. Words are so powerful and language can both shape and document the worldview of the people who speak it. The Kwak’wala word (as discussed in this informative article) for ‘child’ is “my reason for breathing” and a marriage proposal translates to “will you share the same breath?”. These are not just words, they are attitudes, evidence of communal values. Likewise Ojibway, as discussed here by Rupert Ross, does not allow for labeling, in recognizing all people as things which are becoming. What an empowering way to live, in not holding people trapped in the way they are at a moment in time, to acknowledge and allow for growth in the very way that they are linguistically described. When we speak of the need for language preservation, we are not just advocating for phonics and syntax, we are advocating for the revitalization of a way of thinking and seeing the world. Language is just one of the reasons I have fallen in love with my culture.
Over the years, my culture has found me as much I have found it. I was in hospital and my grandmother asked if I brought the art work that was on the wall (which seemed like a crazy question). As it turns out, the painting was an artist rendition of a totem pole my great great grandfather carved (depicted above). They let me take it home because it was such an incredible coincidence. Years later in a museum shop in Toronto, I opened a book about First Nations art to a photograph of my great great grandfather. Last year, on a business trip, an executive I was travelling with offered the services of her husband to drive us to the airport. En route, I learned he had been the band manager on the reserve my great grandfather lived on, and he told me stories about the positive interactions they had over the years. Through these chance encounters, I have fallen in love with it over and over again.
I have fallen in love with culture because of its incredible resilience. My culture survived oppressive legislation. Practicing our most important ceremonies was illegal. It’s not illegal anymore, thankfully, and for that reason I consider it to be like voting. We have the right to practice our way of life, why would we now walk away from that? I vote because I have the right to (as a status First Nations person this has only been the case for 54 years). I value my culture because I have the right to practice it. Culture matters because not all discrimination is historical in nature.
As a woman who self-identifies as Aboriginal (First Nations specifically), I have faced discrimination. A relative of a man I was dating strongly discouraged our relationship on the basis of my racial background. Similarly, I have been told that my professional success is intrinsically tied to employment equity, as if I am not smart or capable or hard working. Culture matters because stereotypes persist. Culture and race is the basis on which I have been told I am less of a person. I don’t consent to my power as a person to be taken away by the negative connotations associated with something that is so dear to me. I am resilient like my culture. I am vibrant like my culture. I am family oriented like my culture and it matters to me as a mom.
Culture matters to me as a mom because it is how I explain to my son where he is from. He proudly self-identifies as Aboriginal. We attend school district Aboriginal family gatherings. He has participated in a first salmon ceremony. He loves drumming and First Nations books. It is part of his identity and I love to nurture that, as a protective factor. I want him to be as proud as I am and safely insulated if someone is so bold and ignorant as to say that the things he values about where he comes from mean he is somehow “less than”.
First Nations culture is still relevant because it’s still alive. We can be one, the expression ‘all my relations’ advocates for that, but I still need to be me, and part of me is that I am part of this other “we”.