02 April 2011
culture and heritage is a living, growing entity which requires
nurturing and care. Ignore it and it dies and fades away.
Tend and encourage it and it can thrive.
Far too often, the
non-Aboriginal society views the First Nations as rooted firmly in
the past... as if they're some anachronistic societies best
portrayed by history books. A world where the images of the
past are expected to be superimposed on the present generations.
or hokey cheesiness?
buckskins. Tipis, bows and arrows and horses. Lots of
horses. With semi-clad buffed warriors astride a horse and
willowy 'Indian princesses' adorned in tailored white leather frocks
communing with some animal (wolves are generally the standard
choice), the caricatures are complete.
Hollywood didn't do
us too many favours in its Golden Age; John Wayne may have been an
American hero, but to many Natives, he was emblematic of American
hegemony run amok.
Come to think of it, TV wasn't too kind
either. Sure, Harold Smith might have become just another
Mohawk steelworker from Six Nations of the Grand River... but switch
the name to Jay Silverheels and suddenly Tonto becomes an icon.
Back in the 1950's,
Native actors were a rare, select group... and in order to hang onto
a job, they pretty much did as they were told. The mere fact
that they were featured in prominent roles was enough of an
accomplishment; why bother pushing for authenticity and reality when
fame was already at hand?
Remember the 'Keep
America Beautiful' commercial in the early 1970's of the famous tear
of 'Iron Eyes Cody' as trash was tossed at his moccasins? The
reality was: he was born Espera Oscar di Conti, son of Sicilian
immigrants, in Kaplan Louisiana. Turns out, Espera was, well,
a major fraud who spent his life both on- and off-screen trying to
pass himself off as a Native. With his huge schnozz, braided
hair and a pot of rouge makeup, he ostensibly filled the bill as
what Mr. & Mrs. America wanted 'their' Indians to look like.
damned. Image is everything.
And broken English
became 'the way Indians talk'. Ugh. Me no talk-um like
foreigner over Big Atlantic pond.
Frankly, I've never
met any real person of the First Nations who ever has.
We're surprisingly erudite English linguists, bordering on being
Oh, the humanity.
Thank Goodness Kevin Costner jitterbugged around the campfire with
his wolf sidekick to REALLY set the record straight. It
helped, I suppose, as subsequent films made by REAL Natives began
hitting the screens soon after.
generation would intentionally deny their ethnicity (1) out of shame
and (2) in order to get a job. I was born in 1954 during the Baby
Boomer wave when Indian Residential schools were still seen as
the saving grace for Natives and reserves were stuck in circa 1935.
Either that's a
sign that I'm starting to show my age (probably) or a tangible fact
that Indian Country is progressing at a blinding speed
Then came the 1969
Native occupation of the abandoned Federal prison on Alcatraz... and
there was no turning back. 'Indian Power' - or more
appropriately, 'Indian Pride' - became a movement that would
eventually evolve and mature.
American Indian Movement (AIM) would start out as 'militant
radicals' defying authority and stereotypes on an isolated rock in
the middle of San Francisco Bay, even AIM has mellowed over the
years. Sure, there are factions within any social movement which
call for more strident measures but age has a way of tempering the
Younger generations would
come to embrace their heritage and celebrate it. "Be the
change you want to see" has replaced, "Be the change I demand you
As a member of the
current parents'/grandparents' generation, I'm heartened and humbled
by the determination that bodes well for the future of the
Haudenosaunee. A culture and heritage, dormant and suppressed
for decades, has burst forward with a vibrancy and vitality not seen
in living memory.
Some segments of
mainstream society seem to get anxious whenever Aboriginals make
overtures towards focusing on their unique culture. To me, it
may be a clear-cut case of xenophobia; fear of the unknown. We
tend to fear and mistrust that which we don't understand and to be
sure, many aspects of the First Nations remain a dark unknown or
Personally, I feel
that attitude is slowly changing as more and more non-Natives are
making sincere and genuine attempts to understand a segment of
society that has been - and is - hidden and/or ignored.
At a time when many
non-Native societies look at their younger members with
disappointment and disapproval, I'm comforted by the knowledge that
long after I'm a memory, the Haudenosaunee will be growing and
progressing at an astonishing pace. I've seen it in my lifetime
and there's every indication that, despite the normal growing pains
which come as a result of rapid growth, the mistakes of the past
will serve as valuable lessons that guide our future generations.
It hasn't been
easy. And it won't get any easier. But two steps
forward with one step back is still progress.
steadfastly close to the principle of the Seventh Generation concept
- making decisions with the yet-to-be-born seventh generation in
mind - is a basic and common guiding theme that transcends First
Nations territories. Eschewing short term gains for long term
goals is yet another Aboriginal philosophy mainstream society might
wish to consider.
The following is an
example of that surging pride. Written by a young Mohawk of
the Six Nations of the Grand River, it clearly shows the depth of
conviction, sense of purpose and the strength of a determined People.
It shows gratitude, humility and respect in the face of many views
that only see greed, arrogance and disrespect.
It's written in
Mohawk and the Mohawk syntax has been left intact. As it should be.
(Although on a technical level, your computer may not have all the
necessary fonts installed to display all the Mohawk characters).
In many Native
communities, Indigenous language speakers are still few and far
between and even fewer listeners (myself included) are able to
understand their own Native language.
But I've been told
that while the ear of the head might not grasp the message being
spoken, the 'ear' of the spirit can. As in many religions,
people may have little trouble 'hearing' the words but they're not
really 'listening' to the message.
language, the message of this proud young Mohawk comes through, loud