"That's the way the Indians do it..."
by Daniel Crowfeather
In today's mainstream society, there is a growing interest in Aboriginal
culture and spirituality, and in a return to simpler ways and times.
However, as people begin to search out information about these cultures,
many have a tendency to take any facts they learn and apply them
to all Aboriginal cultures, as though there was only one universal
Aboriginal culture across all of North America and Meso-America.
In truth, there was and is a rich variety of Aboriginal cultures.
From the peoples of the Northwest coast with their distinctive art
and dependence on the sea, to the Plains peoples and their tipis,
to the Innu people and their kayaks and igloos, each Nation developed
in a way that suited their location and resources. In addition,
each Nation received from the spirit world those ceremonies and
traditions that they needed in order to live their lives in the
best possible way for them. While there are many common threads
that connect these cultures and traditions, there are many small
nuances that make them special and unique to each people.
As an example, consider the simple Medicine Wheel. Here is a symbol
that is found in the traditions of many First Nations, and which
has come to be a generally-recognized symbol of Native cultures.
The concept is simple: a circle divided into four quadrants, each
with one of the four colours of man: Red, White, Black and Yellow.
However, there are nuances: in the Mi'kmaw culture, whose traditions
I follow, the colours are placed as follows: White to the East,
Yellow to the South, Red to the West, and Black to the North. Other
Nations, however, place them in a different order; still others
add Blue and Green for the sky and earth; and some nations do not
have the Medicine Wheel symbol at all. In each case, the tradition
(or lack of it) is appropriate for that Nation, and is not considered
incorrect by any other Nation. In my experience, each culture honours
the differences of the others, and enjoy comparing beliefs as a
way to understand and appreciate each other more deeply.
In a way, it is surprising that we can be so quick to paint everyone
with the same brush. Consider Europe: it occupies a much smaller
area than North America, yet we know that it is full of vibrant
and distinct cultures. We do not expect people from France to be
the same as people from Norway or Germany or Greece; we know that
they have their own cultures and traditions. By the same token,
we should not expect the Sioux to be the same as the Cree, or the
Nootka to be the same as the Hopi; each is its own culture, with
its own traditions and practices.
The main problem, of course, is that much of mainstream society
bases their understanding of native cultures on movies and television.
We must remember that most of this material is intended purely for
entertainment, and usually very little effort is devoted to ensuring
that the culture is being portrayed accurately. As I have said on
many occasions: any resemblance between the Hollywood First Nation
and real life is purely coincidental!
Unfortunately, this problem even extends into many of our First
Nations. Here in Canada, many Nations lost much of their traditional
knowledge thanks to the infamous government boarding schools. Now,
as these Nations try to reclaim their heritage, many are adopting
ceremonies and practices that rightfully belong elsewhere. This
can lead to further loss of their own culture, and to a great deal
of confusion caused by potentially conflicting beliefs. As an example,
there is a growing circle of Mi'kmaw people who have adopted the
Sundance from the plains Nations. The Sundance was originally intended
to honour the buffalo, which we have never had here in the Maritimes.
Because the Sundance tradition is not strongly rooted in the Mi'kmaw
culture, it is also being changed by the adoption: I have heard
a Mi'kmaw Sundancer claim that nobody can become a Medicine Person
for the Mi'kmaq unless they have completed a full commitment to
the Sundance. Apparently the Mi'kmaq have been doing it wrong for
over ten thousand years. However, in the Plains culture there is
no such belief attached to the Sundance. In this case, the adoption
of someone else's tradition has created confusion and, worse yet,
has created rifts between different segments of a Nation.
Thus, we must always remember that each First Nation had its own
unique culture, and we should not assume that any other Nation had
the same beliefs, traditions or practices. The desire to learn is
wonderful, but we must treat each facet of each culture as belonging
to that culture alone, unless we know for certain that it applies
elsewhere. We must learn to deliberately look for and celebrate
our differences, so that we learn to appreciate the uniqueness of
our own cultures, and those of others. If we can all do that, we
will never again hear someone say, "That's the way the Indians
All my relations!
If you would like to learn more about the Mi'kmaw culture, please
Copyright 2005 Daniel
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