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"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 do it."

All my relations!

If you would like to learn more about the Mi'kmaw culture, please visit Mi'kmaq Spirit

© 2005 Daniel Crowfeather

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