(Ottawa, October 2013) The professional development opportunities I have been lucky enough to participate in (First Nations Métis and Inuit Secondary Teacher Network, Inclusive Safe and Caring Schools, Anti-Racism and Ethnocultural Equity Committee, Collaborative Problem Solving, Storytelling, etc) have inspired me to think differently about many, many things.
For example, I now bring tobacco pouches with me, everywhere I go (glove compartment, purse, classroom) just in case I have the good fortune to offer it in thanks for the wisdom shared, or recognize the (unceded) territory I walk upon, and its’ First Peoples. I have learned they ARE the land, and so I always offer a small token of thanks (kinnickinick/tobacco) to the highest ranking elder (I ask). I have learned to offer the pouch with my left hand, palm open, and I try not to speak until they speak to me first – but that is a challenge for me. Kinda like Joe The Painter, a favourite character from a hilarious story.
When I travel, I pay more attention to FNMI history and seek out special landmarks to pay quiet homage, like Thunder Falls, and Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, the Red River Valley or L’Anse Aux Meadow. I learn more than what is provided.
In my classroom, I invent new ways to share important documents like the Royal Proclamation (to introduce “The Kairos Blanket Exercise”, 4th Edition) and the Jay Treaty (to introduce English 2D/3C – Tom King’s short story “Borders” and “Joe the Painter, from One Good Story: That One), and share a vision of land without inked borders, but human and creature ones, and to listen to more voices of history. I link the inventions of FNMI (Pamela Toulouse) to every possible subject I can remember (hockey, maps, sign language, taxes); and link teachings of the Seven Grandfathers to concepts of sustainability, and earth centred consideration of clean water, freely migrating food sources, spawning species, fishing practices, and other ecological priorities in Canada. I use the Medicine Wheel to inspire hope, mental health and mutual understanding in youth and Adult ELLs, and totem (poles/creature study/storytelling) interpretation to improve a student’s appreciation for their similar characteristics and the power of a positive self-image. I use smudging to cleanse our hearts and minds and spirit, before and after we watch the movie “We Were Children”, and I warn students in advance that victims of violence and rape may find scenes in the movie to be a mental health trigger. I give the same warnings when I use the “Sisters in Spirit” movement to introduce the novel “April Raintree” in a senior English class. I used the term ‘two-spirit’ to teach my own child about self-acceptance.
Because of the many lessons found in great stories, I have occasionally day-dreamed how my life might have been different, had I been born to different world experience and view. Like Joe the Painter, to re-create history, a time when I might have been born of the land and learned the First Nations way of survival and living. Would it be a daily life that respects the earth instead of consuming it, and would I find Orenda (spirit) in everything, as I imagine it to be?
Will I possess any gifts – like feeling the change in the wind and being able to intuit its’ meaning; use my senses to understand my surroundings, and distinguish the edible from the uncatchable, much more quickly. With unimaginable privilege, I imagine the essential wisdom of ages would be passed down to me and would be a part of me, without me knowing it was there…much more comfort and gratification to me than the cold, soulless pursuit of the inedible, in this ‘modern’ life. I imagine the heartbeat of the earth would show me the way more clearly, and with far more reliability and integrity than fickle humanity could offer. And I dream of dancing wildly around a giant fire and singing.
And then I wake up. And I realize that my romantic notions, were they made true, would mean that I would more likely have died an early and unfortunate death from smallpox, influenza, starvation, forced migration, incarceration, or enslavement. If that didn’t kill me, the separation from my family to a residential school, the loss of my culture and language, the rape of my soul, and the degradation of my personhood, and the resulting self-loathing (symptoms in the form of addiction) would have surely finished me off. If I had actually lived to have offspring (Chi Meegwatch Creator), and those children survived the public school system, forced adoption (‘60’s Scoops’), addiction, persecution, unemployment, and substandard living conditions, then perhaps my story, would not be extinguished with my last breath. Like 1500 women in this country today, there would be no story for me if my daydream were true. Worse still – there are too few elders left to pass on their language and family history to survivors. There is not enough wampum, paper, or time.
And then suddenly, I feel hopeless.
Then I feel shame. The shame of ages. Deep, deep, low down, dirty kind of shame. I feel it rumble up from the bottom of my feet, like long tendrils of electricity….and prickle my entire scalp as if there were suddenly a cash reward for my blonde/grey braid… as if it were the first day of “500 Years of Loss” for me and my offspring.
Perhaps I feel the shame so profoundly because the narrative of my history is one of righteous conqueror – infallibility bestowed from on High, by virtue of birthright and the Crown. I squirm with understanding this arrogant presumption – and yet, in many ways, I still embody that very English stereotype. The inheritance of privilege: ‘Sunday roast beef with Yorkshire pudding’ kind of English; spots a spelling mistake from 50 paces; uses words like ‘credenza’ instead of ‘buffet’; ‘metastasize’, instead of ‘spread’…. (Sorry Auntie Janet!); punctual, or dies trying. Everything I am…is a result of privilege. My ability to ignore this distinctly white euro-centric ethnic inheritance for as many years as I did – is evidence itself.
I and my ancestors believed the same myths we created about the ‘strangers’ we wanted something from. Our whole culture shared the same ethnic perception and bias, in order to ensure and maintain our entitlements. We were wrong to do so. And when a human being admits they are wrong, it is customary to make some sort of amends. Like something real. Offering recompense in the form of generosity, flexibility, accommodation, advantage, fairness, objectivity, and courtesy would be a great start – but these are all gifts that Canada has yet to proffer FNMI. Don’t take my word for it – ask all those member states of the United Nations who think our less than stellar national performance on responding to issues threatening the lives of indigenous peoples, to be quite despicable.
The world has noticed that Canadians, and their elected officials, continue to squabble over who qualifies as First Nation, Métis or Inuit (like the xenophobes of the 30’s?), and argue over two-dimensional map lines instead of impeded caribou migration lines. We cancel important agreements and Accords, we ghettoize entire villages and towns and ignore their remote plight, we ‘pass the buck’ to the next Minister to ‘fix’ the problems we think are priority, ignoring the reality on the ground, and the people who need the most help; we corrupt those willing, and persecute those of integrity; we build pipelines on land, steal water from lakes that we do not own – or have a right to use; we displace, enslave and then blame the victims for their coping mechanisms, and their perceived ‘inability’ to adapt to our arbitrary terms. This is white privilege in action.
When we learn together about Canada’s First peoples, each student in my blended immigrant/indigenous classroom seems to find something to relate to in the story of subjugation (black, female, religious, gender, sexuality). Some even confront their own prejudices and raise their children differently as a consequence. The world is changing in every classroom.
Maybe humans are not defined by nature and nurture. Maybe humans are defined more by what they do with the cards they are dealt, and by what they UN-learn, than what made them the way they are. Just like my personal hero, Joe the Painter.
And while I might never catch fish as efficiently as I daydream about (regularly would be nice), at least what I have learned might win me a small chance of leaving the world a little bit better off, simply for having asked these questions of myself, colleagues and my students.