Cultural appropriation or reverence?

nativebracelet2With all the talk in Canada these days fuelled by the new Liberal government in relation to Aboriginal peoples, I opened this blog, my blog, and realized not for the first time (but with deeper consideration) that what people see is a photograph in the header of a bracelet created by an Aboriginal man and I’m a middle- aged white chic.

What’s THAT image got to do with anything relevant to my life?

I wear this bracelet every day, and a silver with gold ring that was given to me by the UBC Department of Computer Science, after I worked there for almost four years doing Communications for them.

It was such a special gift and so amazing to receive because it was something more than I could have imagined any work place would ever give me, and because it represented something that I really revere: Aboriginal art and the culture it emerges from.

After all these years, (I left there in November 2006), I almost never take it off and it has become a part of my identity, a comfort, a symbol of rightness in feeling, when it’s on.

I realize that I have never even acknowledged the artist who created it, and now, unfortunately, I’m having trouble really recalling who that was. It could be Tony Hunt Jr.  The image on the bracelet is representative of the Wolf.

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I’m thinking about this now because it is so heartening to see that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at least moving in the right direction in terms of inclusivity and acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples trying to build on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a non-aboriginal person, it can feel awkward speaking to aboriginal anything. Are you using the right terminology? What’s the difference between indigenous, aboriginal, and First Nation’s? Here’s an article from UBC about this topic of terminology. I’m hoping it’s as up to date as it should be in terms of understanding.

Where’s the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation? Is it wrong to call in aboriginal dancers and carvers at every major event (think Olympics) while throughout our country our lack of valuing Aboriginal peoples is carved into the landscape in reserves without running water, in missing and murdered aboriginal women whose numbers continue to grow, in the homeless,  in our prisons where the percentage of Aboriginal people is disproportionate.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2013/2014, Aboriginals account for one-quarter of admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services in spite of representing three percent of the Canadian adult population.  They made up 26% of total custodial admissions in 2013/2014.

Recently I was reading a paper written by Amrita Roy from Manitoba about Inter-generational Trauma and the implications for Mental Health in Aboriginal Women during pregnancy.

One of the sentences in this paper that really struck with me was this one: “The explicit patriarchy embedded into Aboriginal societies by missionaries, residential schools and the Indian Act have yielded inequities and oppression based on gender (LaRoque, 1994). It goes on to talk about how “the symptoms of the Intergenerational Trauma experience have been absorbed into the culture and transmitted as learned behaviour from generation to generation”(Sotero, 2006, p. 96).

When I read what now seems like such an obvious statement,  I had this lightning bolt realization that of course there is a connection between  missing and murdered aboriginal women and this history relative to Aboriginals, especially Aboriginal women, in Canada.

Now, you might think to yourself, “Duh, where have you been?” But, to really realize how the history of patriarchy has played out in the individual lives of aboriginal peoples, and focus that lens on how that continues to impact girl children and women, with the most obvious signs being that of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal girls and women, seems pretty key to learning how to overcome the humanitarian crisis in Canada in relation to Aboriginal people in general, and girls and women in particular.

So, that’s a very convoluted thought process to say that I wear this bracelet because it was a beautiful gift, because of what it represents to me in what I have overcome in my own life and how that specific job was a part of that, and for hope that understanding through cultural sharing can create a bridge to emotional recovery and success.

Truth and Reconciliation. How Will You Participate?

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If you’re not indigenous, it might be easy to think that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has nothing to do with you and you’d be wrong.

September 16-22nd nationally in Canada is the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s work. It’s the culmination of acknowledging and hearing the personal stories of past wrongs done to aboriginal people; admitting that aboriginal families were ripped apart, children were tortured and raped and even used in experiments as recently came to light, with starvation as the test,  taken from their families and put into residential schools run by churches of many denominations, so that they could be shed of their “savage” ways and be assimilated into Canada’s dominant non aboriginal culture.

Many died. And if they didn’t, they died inside, lost to themselves, their value, their potential to Canada gone forever, or at the very least diminished. And, it’s still happening. It’s happening right next door and down the street. “Just open your eyes,” said Shirley Turcotte, a counsellor specializing in Aboriginal Land based Focusing-Oriented therapy who counsels First Nations’ people nationally, and holds workshops throughout the U.S. and Canada.

It’s easy to write those words. So quick. Flowing out of the keyboard. Then, I stop and think about the fact that in Canada, we’re having a Commission that has meant that people who were already traumatized as children are being re-traumatized and must speak about their degradation so that their horrific experiences can be categorized and their pain can  be quantified – as if – so that they can be given cash as a token compensation. Blood money. But something.

What about those who are too lost to speak? Too many aboriginal men in prison. First Nations’ women murdered in Vancouver and along the Highway of Tears.  And when will more of us get that there’s a connection between inter-generational trauma and  poverty, inter-generational trauma  and mental illness, and staying relegated to the shadows, observers, and sometimes, even, as an indirect route to death?

You might think, as a non aboriginal person, what’s it got to do with me? This is the 21st century. Those Indians need to get over it.   You didn’t do anything. You weren’t even born then. Except the last federally-run residential school only closed in 1996.

And, most importantly, here’s the thing. You can’t have reconciliation if the rest of society – non aboriginal people – don’t get it, don’t even want to make the attempt. You can’t have reconciliation if non aboriginal people cringe a little bit every time someone starts a public event thanking the Coast Salish for allowing the event to happen on their territory or they think that cultural traditions that are hundreds of years old, like smudging, sweats, pow wows and a personal and abiding connection to the land, are just quaint little ceremonies.

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Reconciliation can’t exist if you’re one of those non aboriginal people who think that was then and this is now. Look at how much First Nations’ have already been accommodated some are known to say. Except look around, try to see the invisible Indian as Counsellor Shirley Turcotte said to me, while I sat in her van on the way to the UBC Farm where she was meeting elder Jeri Sparrow and others to prepare herbs grown on the farm in the Aboriginal Heritage Garden. They were making salves from calendula and rosemary and pine pitch and a potpourri of so many other herbs. They were putting the resultant salve into small jars to hand out at a workshop she’ll give with Elder Jeri Sparrow and Alannah Earl Young-Leon at the Truth and Reconciliation events. The workshop takes place September 20th from 1-3:30 on the P.N.E. grounds. In the end, they’ll give  attendees a gift from mother earth to help shore them up and support them emotionally. A small jar filled with herbs from the land to help ground themselves when they feel overwhelmed, when they’ve heard too much, when a sound or a voice or someone else’s story becomes too much for them. Just another tool to help them continue on their journeys.

I could choose to pretend Reconciliation has nothing to do with me except I can’t. Because I think back to the sad face with the big frown and the huge brown eyes in my elementary school. Her name was Jody Martin. One day she was there. The next she wasn’t. No idea where she went.  It was never explained to us. I’ve carried her with me, her silence, within me  ever since she was there in Grade One or was it Grade Three and I have always wondered what happened to her? Why does she haunt me?

I think back to Simon, a First Nation’s carver who I dated, who called me after he had told his painful truths at a hearing and I knew it was a big deal when I tried to listen, to be present, but how could I ever know what that felt like and what it really meant for him to do that? I wonder how he’s doing. I couldn’t really be how he would have needed me to be then on the phone that evening.

And I think about how I am still always a little shocked whenever a First Nation’s person has a Ph. D. because my stereotypes get in the way. How is it that this person was able to overcome the collective history? I think back to the time I went onto the Neskonlith Band reservation, No. 1 or No. 3,  just outside Salmon Arm and they barely had running water, never mind access to technology and it was 1993.

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I think about the beautiful First Nations’ jewelry that I was given as a parting gift from UBC Department of Computer Science  –  a ring and a silver bracelet – that I almost never remove,  and how when I’m around aboriginal people wearing that jewelry that is truly precious to me, I feel a little embarrassed. Will my reverence be seen as cultural appropriation?

As someone reminded me this week,  You can’t have reconciliation, or the beginnings of a move towards it, if the only people who participate in Truth and Reconciliation events are indigenous.  You can’t create a new type of society unless everyone cares enough to learn, tries to understand, participates, moves towards respect.

Here’s the schedule of how you can participate, the week of September 16-22  if you live in Vancouver.

Attend a one day course in Kelowna on Focusing Oriented Therapy.