Taking Identity

Article excerpt

Knowing who we are despite how others see us

Sometime around 1910, photographer Edward Curtis visited Piegan Blackfoot leader Little Plume at his home in southern Alberta.

By this time, many indigenous communities were relegated to reserves. Most had been exploited by governments and were viewed as a burden. Many endured poverty due to long-standing ways of life altered.

In this, Curtis found a market in Indian portraits. Framed as "disappearing" cultures, his portrayals of head-dressed chiefs, horse-backed warriors, and women in forests received critical acclaim. U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt called his work "truthful."

What Roosevelt and others didn't know was that indigenous peoples didn't look like this. Curtis brought trunkfuls of clothing and objects with him. When his subjects didn't fit the story he was telling, he dressed them up.

Arriving in Little Plume's lodge, Curtis snapped a photo. Developing it, he was aghast.

There was a Victorian clock beside Little Plume.

Curtis couldn't have a dying culture with a clock.

So, doctoring the photo, he removed time.

Recently, I taught Ojibway rap artist Wab Kinew's 2009 CD Live by the Drum at the University of Manitoba. I asked my students: "What is Ojibway about this music?"

Many identified the use of Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibway language. Some said the beats resembled canoeing. Another argued that anything made by an Ojibway is Ojibway.

"Those are interesting enough definitions," I responded, "but what do you do with the English in the music? The fact other cultures canoe? Or, that Ojibway now sound like the Borg from Star Trek?"

After further discussion, the defining feature we settled on was that Kinew's album gave us a sense of a dynamic, changing and growing culture. Utilizing traditional and community practices, the music showed us how a people were entering the future.

Continuing, we determined Ojibway expressions are living processes that connect a unique community with the forces they meet in the universe. Whether encountering wind, an animal or another people, Ojibway ceremonies, songs and stories represent attempts to understand and form relationships within a living universe.

They are offerings, gifts.

By gifts I don't mean that re-gifted mug. I mean a presentation that illustrates something about an individual or community. This could be history, experiences, or knowledge about the universe. Anything.

Not all gifts instil warm fuzzies either. Some are painful and discomfiting. Truth tends to be this kind of gift.

Once an offering is accepted, Ojibway often expect these to form a bond for a long time. At least until the next time the parties meet and new gifts are exchanged.

What's Ojibway about Kinew's music are the gifts that offer who he, his community and his culture are as a growing people. It's all of it: from the first lyric, sound and message to the last.

Each presents a central message Ojibway know: that we are all related.

This isn't a new age slogan. It means Ojibway and others are distinct entities but deeply tied to one another. Through sound, word, and movement all are part of a network committed to sharing this world.

We are relatives with shared responsibilities to speak, sing, and act -- and allow others to as well.

Family aren't friends. You treat relations with respect and dignity, even if you don't like them. You don't chuck a gift from your sister or uncle in the garbage. You don't consciously hurt your relatives -- because then you are really hurting yourself.

I'm no expert on Piegan Blackfoot culture, but I know this.

By erasing the clock, Curtis was disrespecting a gift.

Little Plume was showing him who he was.

Much of Canadian policy during the last few centuries has been to try to erase parts of indigenous life and replace them.

The epitome of this, the residential school system, sought to "kill the Indian and save the man. …