Why there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture”

Summertime and the livin’ is powwow, gathering, or festival. It’s over-priced Indian tacos, bison burgers, moose stew and corn soup.  It’s the endless drone of boring chatter and lousy jokes by an MC, stalls of snake oil salesmen hawking surefire cures for diabetes and arthritis, and traditional dancers wearing outfits with faux beadwork made of colorful printed cloth and not a single bead or piece of leather, except perhaps for the mocs on their feet.

Don’t get me started on the rows and rows of stalls filled with mass produced dreamcatchers, crystals, fake turquoise and t-shirts with wolves, bears and eagles. Why anyone would shell out $25 or more for a $5 t-shirt with a really lousy animal print is beyond me.  P.T. Barnum, he of Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” and promoter extraordinaire, said there was a sucker born every minute. He had it about right.

Snob? Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I love to drop by to see old friends or make new ones. To watch or, better yet, jump into a round dance along with everyone else in the audience. Or, to sit and savour every spoonful of a really good bowl of corn soup that reminds my taste buds of those grannies on Cornwall Island or down in Oneida territory.

No, what gets me is the crass commercialism and blatant fleecing of the crowd, one perhaps lured by the call of the drum but more likely by increasingly slick advertising for…  what? ‘Aboriginal culture?’

The signs are up at every single one of these gatherings: “Welcome to (insert place) Powwow, a celebration of Aboriginal culture.” It might be in Wikwemikong, Fort Alexander, Carcross, Winnipeg, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Kahnawake, Ohsweken. They’re all guilty of promoting something called “Aboriginal culture.”

This is bad enough for the idiots among us. But the real target is the poor unknowing Caucasian who wouldn’t know the difference between Ojibway and Algonquin, Mi’kmaq or Maliseet. For all I know, these poor suckers might actually believe this is how we live all year round, in little powwow villages called reserves, surviving on bison burgers, corn soup and selling each other mass produced dreamcatchers.

Of course, they’ve heard about Attawapiskat. But that’s a place that doesn’t look like a powwow village. Perhaps this is the real reason for their outrage last winter.  Maybe, they think, folks up there don’t sell each other enough dreamcatchers and bison burgers and that’s the real reason why that place is in such a mess.

But that isn’t the point. This is: there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture.”

“Aboriginal culture” is a false construct, a somewhat pleasing but ultimately stupefying myth. I expect some idiot to tell a reporter someday that he ain’t Cree — he’s Aboriginal! Or she isn’t Anishnabe — she’s Aboriginal!  Or they’re not Inuvialuit — they’re Aboriginal.  When — not if — that happens, I’ll know that we’ll have totally failed as storytellers and artists and playwrights because we haven’t done a good enough job to protect and explore our own cultures. By falling for this one word, we encourage a process that erases our national identities and helps dissolve us all into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold mush.

More than once lately, someone has asked, “We didn’t call it ‘Aboriginal Day.’ We called it ‘Solidarity Day’ or ‘Unity Day.’ When did it change?”

That’s how it happened. Slowly. Gently. A slight change in the name of a grant form became a nudge toward an annual celebration of generic-hood. The ‘no-naming’ of our individual, multicolored and multinational cultural identities. All it took was a little money to convince us to forget ‘Solidarity’ against colonialism, against the threat of governments’ use of force if we didn’t behave, against the power of “The Man” in Ottawa. Remember that “Solidarity Day” came about because for the first time in a generation, people stood tall and spoke up during a little thing called the “Oka Crisis.”

A little money and we forgot to stand in unity for our rights, for our existence and uniqueness in this world. Today, there are no Cree, Anishnabe, Pikani or Mohawk powwows or gatherings on June 21. They’re no-name, generic, one-size-fits-all gatherings that celebrate nothing but a day off. It happened without a growl or a whimper.

This isn’t about race. It’s about culture. Culture — not language or the colour of our skins — makes us different and special. Each and every one of our languages is said to be the key to our very many and separate cultures. It’s our cultures that make “People of Flint” (Mohawk) different from “People of Stone” (Oneida) and different from any of the other independent nations under that umbrella called the Haudenosaunee.

You may know us as the Six Nations Confederacy.  But you probably also think of us as one, single entity. We aren’t.  We — Haudenosaunee — are very different peoples, with different cultures even though we share a certain linguistic flavor.  We’re different nations united politically under one common law into a confederacy.

That’s the beauty of culture, you see. I may share the roots of a language with others but remain different. I might not speak my language at all but still be able to appreciate and learn about my culture and what makes it — and me — different from someone from the Prairies or the Atlantic or even my Haudenosaunee brothers, the Seneca. This knowledge gives me the foundation to appreciate my ancestors who made all of this possible.

Strangely, disgustingly, I rarely hear anyone talk about their nations or their nationality anymore.  They do on the southern side of another great construct called the international border. Down there, they call themselves the “Ojibway Nation of…” someplace, or “the Seminole Nation of…” someplace else.  Up here, I walk into city kids and ask: “What’s your nation?” And they reply: “Aboriginal.” Down there, it’s the Bureau of Indian Affairs but it’s No-Name Affairs up here.

What if… the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution to ban the word “Aboriginal” from its lexicon? Would it be so terrible if they used three words instead of one?  What if this same resolution committed the AFN’s band councils to do the same?  Would the world end?

What if these band councils also committed to stop calling themselves “first nation” and instead they told the truth. For example, what if Pikwanagan admitted it wasn’t a nation unto itself, or first nation, but “part of the Algonquin Nation.” What if Grand River told the truth that it wasn’t “the Six Nations” but only a part of a Confederacy divided by that same international line, or Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) a “part of the Mohawk Nation… Seneca Nation… Onondaga Nation” and so on.

Yeah, you’re probably right. Technicolour dreaming. Perhaps a first, overly-optimistic step might be a resolution to go back to calling June 21 “Solidarity Day.” This might revive the meaning of June 21 which has become little more than a day off work, a chance to be walking, talking tourist attractions for many, and a time to draw the suckers in for others.

17 thoughts on “Why there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture”

  1. You know you have a big chip on your shoulder, when you are taking the time to rant about what you are called.  Aboriginal, Indian, Native, First Nations…  Almost every year you come out with a new way of saying who you are.  ‘this year its no longer acceptable to say, Native, so please say First Nations.’  Honestly, it gets confusing and tiresome, and that’s why I just think of you as a person.  but man!  you wrote a whole article to explain that you have culture, but its not Aboriginal Culture.  but in essense, it is.  you are (or were called) Aboriginals etc, and now you want us to memorize all of your band names and places, just so you feel separate from the other ‘Aboriginals’?  maybe you should write an article on why people want to separate themselves from the rest of society….   btw, how many separate cultures are under the umbrella term ‘Aboriginals’  in this country, and around the world.  my guess is too many to keep track of, and thats why ‘they’ use the term Aboriginal.

  2. @facebook-550945226:disqus Rutter: you read this article and THAT’S what you got from it? What does “ranting about what you are called” have anything to do with having a chip on your shoulder? Canadians do it all the time: holidays, national sporting events, not to mention maps, textbooks, monuments, government buildings, letterhead, etc. – it seems Canadians cannot go a day without ranting about what they are called (as any good university class on nationalism will tell you, that’s how it works). If the changing names get tiresome and confusing for you, think how most Indigenous people(s) feel (oops, another term – here’s an aspirin) about a term used incorrectly for more than five centuries. In Canada alone, more than 10 different language groups with more than 50 different spoken languages. All of which Canada plungered into a couple of terms. And now you’re complaining not only because there are too many to remember but because the few that do exist seem to change. Also, apparently, making it too much to remember. Dude: Native, Aboriginal, First Nations, Metis, Inuit and Indigenous. If you can’t remember even those, I have a name or two I will remember you by 😉

  3. I like the way your writing makes me respond.  I may not necessarily agree with you on some points but it jars my thinking and causes me to leave that comfortable realm which needs a shake-up every now and then.  Thirty years ago, I was just beginning my teaching career and was learning the importance of doing my research before espousing my opinions.  You cannot do this on emotions alone and I feel, not only have you done your homework, but you are writing from the heart as well.  I look forward to reading more.  Ekosi. 

  4. My point is, we are human, and having a different culture is great, but I don’t go around making people know that Im from New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland to name a few, take an aspirin… No one cares anymore.  this is Canada.  and if people in the past let themselves be named wrong, well, they can say sorry.  I wasnt there, dude, so stop coming at me, insulting me.  you don’t even deserve a response, but since you missed my point, and called me out, i’ll give you one.  What do you want, a cookie for being different?  Im different, and i don’t get MY panties in a knot over being called White, or Canadian…so why would you?  sensitive much?

  5. It is frustrating when there are Europeans, Africans, Asians…people who know they come from different countries yet are somewhat okay with a general term to describe where they come from and the basic sense of culture that pervades their area. There needs to be a unified name, not chosen by someone else, that gives either North Americans or South Americans some name to call themselves. “I am Lakota, of North America, of Planet Earth.” 

  6. You think that’s what happened, that people “let themselves be named wrong”? I know you weren’t there, dude – but you are here now, and whether or not you want it, you gain live in a society of privilege gained by Indigenous peoples being fucked over by treaty promises not being fulfilled. So there’s two ways you can deal with this: you can say “I wasn’t there, this has nothing to do with me, so stop whining about it” OR you can say “I realize I wasn’t there but this is still messed up, what can we do about changing that?”. It’s obvious which side you’ve come down on, which is cool in the sense that you live in a colonial country, you can choose what kinds of relationships you want to have with Indigenous peoples. But that doesn’t mean you can’t envision a different and more just future. But when you say stupid shit like “What do you want, a cookie for being different?”, I find it really difficult to have an intelligent conversation with you. Being from New Zealand and given the large and politically active Maori population there, I would think you would have a better handle on these issues. But let me guess, too many Indigenous names there, too?

  7.  I think the author of this essay is saying to the people of the various nations (Mohawk, Maliseet, Oneida; etc) to remember who they are. In short, this isn’t about you.

  8. Hey Danny, is Aboriginal day a holiday for Ohnkwehonwe people? It sure isn’t for the rest of us. And of course, for as long as the federal government pays for the holiday celebrations (if that is what they are), they will never be called Solidarity Day, that’s for sure! 

  9. I don’t know a whole lot of Europeans, Africans and Asians who appreciate having their nationality completely ignored. Am I going to go around referring to my Burundian friends as “Africans”? Should I refer to my sister-in-law’s Dad as African because he is from Egypt? Uh, no. Do I appreciate being referred to as “American” or “North American” when I am overseas? Not especially. It might be okay in a newspaper article or in the media in certain contexts, but beyond that, it only betrays the ignorance of the person using the terms. I mean, if you want to know where I am from or who I am, why not ask rather than just calling me an American?  Sadly, it seems that the vast majority of Canadians are more aware of the names and cultures of people living in Asia than they are about the names and cultures of the first peoples of Canada. If you don’t know, maybe you should ask “what nation are you?” Are you (in no particular order) Algonquin or Mohawk (Kanienkahaka), Oneida, Tuscarora, Cayuyga,  Onondaga, Seneca, Delaware, Cree (Eeyou), Innu, Mig’maq, Maliseet, Saulteaux, Anishnabe, Inuit, Wetsuwetan, Hieltsuk, Tlingit or Nklakapma, Siksika, Haisla, Dene, Haida, or some other nation? Given that hardly anyone recognizes more than a few of those nations, I think using general terms like “First nations” or “Aboriginal” is really just an indication of ignorance – an ignorance that is the product of hundreds of years of colonialism designed to keep us non-Native people separate and ignorant of those who were here first. 

  10. Thank (most) of y’all for the reax. My birth certificate puts my “Race” as “Red”. I think that’s a hoot.  For years, you called me an Indian. Somewhere, I learned that you refused to call me a Mohawk until you made it synonymous with outlaw and smuggler. But much earlier than that, my parents corrected this and said we were Kanienke:haka.  I’d hate to let you be wrong about what to call me for the next 30 or 40 years.  So don’t.  Just don’t.  I’ll do quite well without your help and identify myself the way I want.

    I’ve travelled some. In Africa, South Africa in particular, I learned a few words in a few of the  tribal or national – and I mean official – languages of that country. Yes, I admit that I even picked up a word or two in Afrikaans. I know, I know, the language of the oppressor and all that. But it’s their country, y’see, and I wished to show respect to all. And believe it or not, Afrikaans may be the most widely spoken language in SA – even more than English.

    I ran into Ibo, Khoi-San, Ndbele and a lot more who may have travelled with passports that didn’t identify them by these tribal identities. The point is THEY identified themselves that way. Yes, those bloody Europeans and their damned colonialism drew a whole bunch of new lines based on their own need to divvy up the continent for exploitation. This happened all over the world.

    The Saami peoples of northern Europe have to deal with the foolishness of Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The Saami keep their languages, their customs and ways of life, and celebrate their culture at every chance to reaffirm their identity. They even have their own parliament. I like those kind of people; people who can give the world a one-finger salute while wearing a big smile at the same time.

    Back home, we have blonde or red-headed, blue-eyed people who are Mohawk to the core.  One of my friends wrote  a book called “Funny, You Don’t Look Like
    One.”  He’s a blue-eyed, light-skinned, brown-haired Ojibway. He’s Ojibway to the core.  It isn’t about race or mixed race. It’s about us identifying completely with our own cultures and resisting becoming no-name brands in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I hate to make things easy for any government but especially this one.

    So don’t throw that “Aboriginal culture” crap at me because there ain’t no such thing. There’s Ibo culture, Saami culture, Ojibway culture – and Mohawk culture.  Disagree with me if you wish. But I’d rather stand for something than be nothing.

  11. Gutsy article. I like your candid perspective. I travel extensively and see these same issues with indigenous  cultures world-wide.

  12. Congratulations Dan David, I enjoyed your article in the book entitled “Taking Risks” – your article called “All my Relations” was a compelling read. No status card, or government confirmation can appropriately sum up the oral history taught to the majority of us!

  13. I totally understand your confusion and the issues that lead to these changes of social opinion are often hard to understand from the outside of the communities which they effect.
    However, the only thing that bothered me about your comment was when you said, “why people want to separate themselves from the REST of society…”

    This suggests that Indigenous communities are not societies or were not societies within themselves. A society is an organized group or mass of people or a population.
    These Indigenous peoples were true societies far before colonization. What you generalize as the “rest of society” is one built upon lies and intentionally deceptive/misleading treaties. The “rest of society”, as you defined it, seems to have forgotten where they came from. But Indigenous people are questioned for fighting to remember and respect their own history and ancestors. They, in my opinion, show much more merit as a society, than the current, generally assumed, ‘normal’ societal systems that we usually encounter.
    I conclude by saying that, while separation is not the proper technique to achieve an efficiently functioning system. I still understand their desire to phonetically separate themselves from the “rest of society”.
    As they never consented to joining said society; They don’t necessarily want to separate, they just want to remind people that they never agreed to ‘join’, so to speak, this ‘society’ to begin with.

    BTW this was not written as an attack. I found that you were somewhat respectful in your comment (noting the lack of unnecessary cursing :P), and I simply sought to answer that question of yours, regarding the separation from the rest of society. I am truly happy to see someone like yourself expressing their opinions in a polite and respectful manner, thus encouraging respectful adult conversations. Miigwetch 🙂

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