what is taking so long?

When the National Indian Brotherhood, or NIB, began using the word “aboriginal” in some of its documents more than 30 years ago, my Mom and Dad railed at those those they called “idiots” and worse. The NIB is the fore-runner of today’s Assembly of First Nation, and the national organization representing band council chiefs in Canada. My parents could not fathom why the NIB seemed insistent upon using generic, one-size-fits-all umbrella terms to refer to themselves.

Why, they wondered, didn’t they go back to referring to themselves as they had for centuries and in their own languages. To my parents, use of those other generic terms showed just how successful decades upon decades of brainwashing had been in erasing their own national identities. So instead of calling themselves “chopped liver,” they should call themselves “onkhwehhonhweh,” “Kanienkeha:ka” or “Anishnabek” instead.

My parents were also quite upset when band council chiefs at the AFN decided to call each of their reserves “first nations.” They felt that was just as divisive as a generic term since it gave each reserve, an artifice of the Indian Act, the pretense of existing as a separate and distinct “nation” but (still) under the Indian Act and without any central, sovereign national identity.

In northern Saskatchewan for instance, you can have a whole bunch of Cree territories separating themselves from each other as “first nations,” refusing to group themslves under their own national identity – as part of the Cree Nation.

To my parents, it was all about “divide and conquer;” it was a simple question of cultural, political and national survival. Our own Indigenous nations would either hang together or, to quote Benjamin Franklin, we would surely hang separately.

It seems someone is now thinking along similar lines. The Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) represents mostly Ojibway and Algonquin bands in eastern and northeastern Ontario. they passed a resolution instructing:

“… government agencies, NGOs, educators and media organizations that they should discontinue using inappropriate terminology when they are referring to the Anishinabek. We respect the cultures and traditions of our Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters, but their issues are different from ours.”

The resolution notes that “there are no aboriginal bands, aboriginal reserves, or aboriginal chiefs” and that the reference to “aboriginal rights” referred to in Section 35 of the Constitution Act of Canada “was never meant to assimilate First Nations, Metis and Inuit into a homogeneous group.”

Now if these Anishnabek can only get away from that clumsy “first nation” bit, and convince the others at the AFN as well, they might get somewhere. They might even get there quicker.

So… listen up. I am not a “first nation person.” I am Kanienkeha:ka (aka Mohawk). Get it?

If Canadian reporters can understand the difference between Shona and Kikuyu in Africa, or Croat from Serb in the Balkans, then why can’t they learn the differences and proper names for the distinct Indigenous nationalities within Canada as well? So can politicians.

Just saying.



Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Canadian politics, Indigenous rights, journalism

6 responses to “what is taking so long?

  1. This is very well spoken, addressing an incredibly important, yet nearly always overlooked aspect. As long as terms such as aboriginal and first nations are used in leiu of the real names of these nations, it is easy to make generalizations about such struggles. Everyone has a responsiblility to recognize these individual nations, to learn about them; especially ones local to them.

    Honestly, this post really opened my eyes, and made me feel rightly ignorant. Sure, I have a better understanding of “aboriginal” struggle than many white people, but this post made me see how this is irrelevant, making me realize that such struggle exists differently for each of the nations. Now that I realize it, it is sad that perhaps the only reason I know the name of the nation whose land I occupy is because it is also the colonialist name (Okanagan)

    I wonder if the tendency to use a blanket term for all these nations and peoples comes from the fact that so many whites identify only as “white”, with little to no sense of cultural history short of some vague and false sense of entitlement and no connection to the land which they occupy (except for false entitlement enabled by commodification perhaps).

    Thanks for shedding light on something I had never really thought of.

  2. If you don’t mind, I’d like to post this on my blog so that people I know might read it.

  3. shmohawk

    Rick, I don’t mind at all. Glad you you found the post interesting.

    I can add one thing to this. I was listening to my sister;s grandchildren the other day. They all have names like Kawenihe and Tekaroniake – and these are the only names they call themselves. No Jack or Peter in this bunch.

    But I was listening to them speak with each other about movie they were watching on DVD (yes, and they’re also heavy into online gaming and email and all that stuff). It was set in the Balkans and they were talking among themselves about the former Yugoslavia, and the war that pitted the Serbs, the Croats and Muslims against each other. They seemed to be relating it to their own experiences in Canada, in southern Quebec.

    How neat is that? How telling? How amazing? I wonder about this generation sometimes, and whether we will leave them anything worthwhile or better prepared than we were. And then these kids come along and just blow my mind.

  4. This is very good. Where are you? You need to keep writing.

  5. shmohawk

    Thanks. I’ve been away, busy, and busier. I keep threatening to visit friends in Ottawa, a 2-hour drive from me, but can’t seem to find the time. But I’ve given it some thought and have just posted something – just because you got me off my fat arse.

    nia:wen kowa (thanks very much in my lingo)

  6. She:kon nok Sken:nen, shmohawk. Your lingo happens to be mine also. O:nen ki’waki. Keep writing! (ps nice gustoweh you got there)

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