The past tells us a story. This story is white. It transpires submission. As they say, colonial mentality in the face of savagery. A few pictures here and there, in a Quebec history textbook. Native Americans growing corn, the others, nomads who hunt and gather. Animal skins on their shoulders and shaman healers. Cone-shaped tents, others in the shape of semicircles and longhouses, in which we lived by the dozen. The imaginary just stands there, observing lifestyles significantly different from those civilized. Often the story does not reveal any more.
We wish to take a look at the story, not as a distant disappointment, but rather as being part of it, as having taken part in its development. The story we wish to share with you, is no longer only white, it takes place inland, at sea and within men. The aim is try to look at who we are and to accept where we come from. This story has flaws and it also has incredible power, resilience and temerity. Its main purpose; a desire for change.
We want to resolve collective amnesia. Tell. Share. Translate into reality. Withstand the test of time. Accompany the world’s affairs. Establish a foothold. To recreate a we to populate the present territories, these territories that made us.
This we which we wish to shout out, this we in turmoil in which we carry all fragmented hopes. This we whom we are trying to tame.
To experience diversity again that now resides within us.
There are hard to break ties, one-hundred-year-old trees, rooted and strong, impossible to kill. The bond between our nations and nature is as such. One might think that they were born from imagination, from wild unconsciousness, naive of the First Peoples. However, these bonds are real, steeped in history and in the former life of nomads.
Our cultures are expressed in our commitment to our traditional ways of life and in our ways of living and thinking. Values such as respect, mutual support and sharing are prominent in our communities and several words of our languages bear witness to that. In the past, people were united by community spirit; there was no life without it. We established our traditional living spaces with family, where we wanted to see our children grow, in a place where we felt connected and in harmony. But even if we no longer live in traditional territory, it is within us, rooted by thousands of years of occupation.
The territory is the cradle of Aboriginal nations; our culture, our history, our language, our spirituality, our lifestyle as well as our identity are one with it. The territory is tradition and customs. Nowadays, we occupy the territory differently but it is where we draw our strength, our courage, our perseverance to continue to defend our rights, our language, our culture and our own independent way of doing.
Ultimately, if there was one permanent feature, it would probably be this simple thing, which more than anything, we try to transmit and sustain: this form of sensitivity to natural elements and the close relationship it maintains with the stability of all things, within this vast circle in which we are all evolving, nature, man or beast.
Originally, it was thus foolish for us to think of owning things, land, elements. We see ourselves as a component of the universe and not a separate entity within it: we have no power over the other components other than to negotiate with them our place and our relationships. No living being is superior to another; each one is essential where it is. The water and the land do not belong to us, just like wampum belts do not belong to their guardian, the latter’s mandate is to protect them and pass them on.
For us, wandering into the woods is like entering our house. The territory in its entirety serves us as shelter, drugstore, pantry, we can live in and with this territory, our identity is deeply linked to it. This explains why the protection of the environment and the importance of water are deeply rooted in our traditions. This resource is vital for us not only for food and raw materials but also because our traditional medicine uses certain animal parts. The waterways are our roads and our pantry; therefore we must take great care of them.
It is easy to forget how difficult this way of life was. Exhausting, grueling. A continual race for subsistence. Primary needs sometimes difficult to meet. The dry winter and famines that follow one another. The bitter cold which kills the weak. Babies who die after their first breath because of poor sanitary conditions and mothers who perish during childbirth, leaving behind orphans. Unknown diseases that wipe out entire families.
One would have to be crazy to want to return to the past, to live as our ancestors. And one would have to be ignorant to not grasp the magnitude of their achievement. We are the heirs of their suffering, their survival.
This forest, it was inhabited, for a time period exceeding the 400 years of Western history, for a time period which can be counted by millennia. Through the forest, from one mountain to another, from a stream to a river. Their struggle, their lives, their difficulties have served as our guide. It is because they walked, inhabited the wild forests, that we can go there today to refocus. It is because they have portaged, rowed, killed animals, that we are still living in these territories. And when, during the winter holidays, we happen to take the train, to watch the snowing horizons go by, to live a few days in the distant silence; when we happen to stay in a log cabin during a storm, we should never, under any circumstances, forget the ancestors from whom we come, those who have helped us to love our territory.
We do not own the animals. Our respect for them has always been part of our myths, stories and customs. It was an honor for our ancestors to be named after animals with similar traits to their own. Our hunting practices also share this respect. There is a time and a way: with thanks and offerings to the life that is offered to serve our own; never during the breeding season, as is the case today in sport hunting. The animal is conscious of its role in the universe and the need we have for it, it therefore comes voluntarily to the hunter.
Hunting and fishing remain to this day the foundation for the survival of our traditional way of life and represent an essential supply of food for many families. It is also through hunting that several craft practices survive, by supplying the raw materials for their realization. This is why we must conserve resources and protect breeding. For our communities, being a good hunter especially also implies having knowledge of the animal’s behavior and the sense to take it into account for the species’ survival.
The good hunter is also one who shares his catch with the community. Although the arrival of freezers has changed our practices by allowing long term conservation of the meat, sharing is still practiced today but rather among the clan or with family rather than with the whole village as in the past. Thus, the Elders who no longer have direct access to hunting are never forgotten.
For us nothing is lost, all parts of the animal are destined for something, serve a purpose, a practice. All caribou or moose meat is good, everything can be eaten; like wolves, we leave nothing behind.
But nowadays, some parts are thrown away because city life changes our practices. Animal carcasses often left behind by hunters are wasted and this troubles us. The act of exhibiting the moose head on the hood of ones car as a trophy is also troubling, since in our opinion this shows a lack of respect for the spirit of the animal, to the gift it has given with its life.
Between birth and death, life is but an accessory.What matters to us is the survival of the spirit which depends on family members who must look after the spirit of the dead, through the bonds created by the drum.
The use of this instrument requires special respect, demands a seriousness and thereby, bears in its symbolism purity and the centrality of relationships that bind us to other beings, to the world and to spirit. We are reclaiming this organ which is the drum to stay alive; we strike its membrane so that the meanings of our dreams finally become understandable again through the chaos of this era.
Many are fighting for the repatriation of our ancestors’ bones preserved in museum or universities. We want to bring them back near us, within our communities; an urgent necessity since abandoning them is unthinkable to us.
Despite all the differences among nations, animals bring us together through their symbolic nature; they are a common language of the territory. From generation to generation we share the story of the bear, the wolf, the porcupine, the raven and the whale in several nations and according to different features, but always based on the knowledge and powers of the beast.
Traditionally, many claimed that we all had an animal ancestor and that it determined the clan to which we belonged, lending us in passing its abilities, its strength, and this very special bond with the territory. In addition, some legends claimed that our survival depended on the spirit of the hunted animals.
In some way, the animals are our point of origin. They are the ones who, by their sacrifices and teachings, have shaped us.
A legend is timeless. It is part of a past era set in a vaporous space where dreams and poems are woven. A legend recalls the time when animals were similar to humans. It considers the whimsical appearance and disappearance of spirits, done without any apparent reason, a natural occurrence. It is not rational. It is colorful and spirited.
A legend is alive. A legend teaches us what we must know. It tells us about our creators, supernatural heroes, friends, enemies and situates us on earth and in heaven. A legend is a spirit’s friend, an ally to wisdom, an assistant to memory. It is tragic, humoristic, frightening or reassuring. It is philosophical, dishonest, provocative, shameless spiritual or frivolous. It has all of the world’s qualities and flaws.
A legend is essential. We can not live without the euphoria, surprise, sadness and knowledge we are provided by these stories. They turn the world into tales.
Plentiful like the trees of the forest, myths of the world’s creation are abundant and come in several versions. While different, they are similar. Every nation, every community, every family has its version.
Legends have diverse subjects : creation of planets and the earth, conflicts and wars, love, lust, gluttony, sloth, deception, pilferage, ghosts, monstrous creatures, wicked sorcerer or dedicated healers, altruistic or harmful animals, nourishing and medicinal plants.
Legends remind us of who we are and from which culture we come from. Besides giving life lessons, they educate on prohibitions by establishing what was acceptable or not in a given society.
EDUCATION – TRANSMISSION
There was a time when the transmission of knowledge was natural. The principle of survival stronger than everything. To learn how to live in the woods and in tents, one had to learn how to tan caribou skin, weave snowshoes, fish with a harpoon, and bake bread in ashes. We educated children through example. They learned through observation. Given that all of this was necessary.
Recognition of the role of Wise man or Elder is not a matter of age. Our Wise men are conveyers of stories, narratives, traditions, they are guardians of our culture.
Children also have an important place in our societies whose cohesion is ensured through respect rather than through authority. It is with their parents that children learned, by living in their shoes and discovering for themselves why they had to obey. A parent’s role is to guide, without imposing, so as not to interfere with the spirits which also guide the child.
From the creation of reserves, from the sudden change in lifestyle, such knowledge has become an accessory. And since school was the school of life, transmission no longer had any support, neither in practice nor in the leading function of things to be built.
The education practiced by Europeans upon their arrival was much stricter than traditional education and the shock of residential schools was even greater for our children.
BACK TO THE SOURCE
Pow Wows allow us to gather together and share. For everything that they encompass has somewhat of a sacred, protective and personal quality. It is not only the folklorization of culture. There is nothing to sell, nothing to photograph. Everything is sharing, demonstrating. Each object in itself represents a sign, a symbolic power.
A certain agitation is produced, an amalgam of knowledge, signs and symbols that are conveyed by the different nations. Pow Wows, as well as this knowledge-sharing dimension, are intrinsically linked. To reconnect with practices which have been left behind for so long, expanding the boundaries of knowledge necessarily becomes a matter of cultural survival. These events therefore intend for knowledge to be somewhat nomadic, as it allows for many people to find and take upon themselves this lost connection to a common identity. The nations mingle, share amongst themselves and thus bring together in their own way specific traditions, a rich and pure wisdom.
regalias reflect this passion, this pride and a desire to belong. Through their preparation and their ritualistic wearing, our young people rediscover, identify and Spiritualize themselves; giving meaning to their existence and their difference, a meaning needing no words, which emerges through actions, through praxis. This return to traditional practices, such as dances and drum chanting are once again closely linked to the communion of beings and spirits, to the respect for life as the cornerstone of any reflection on the world and to the importance we must attribute to it.
Before the creation of the bands, there were family clans. To live together in clans, there needed to be a leader, clan mothers, a hierarchical system, because to survive, we had to be together. community spirit was not an incidental value; it was a focus of our concerns. Like mutual aid, between young and old. Like sharing, between rich and poor. Like hard work, during times of famine. If the ancestors could share with us their life story, they would without a doubt tell us that they didn’t have a choice, that this was how it was. Each role, established for survival. Man was the provider, the hunter, the protector. He drew from everyday labors, daily pride and contentment.
Following the hunters were the clan mothers. Women of authority. They educated, organized, baked bread and fed their family. With men gone for long periods of time, they ensured the survival of their own, took charge in quarrels, enforced justice. All day long and even during the night, they made sure that all went well. These grandmothers, 100 years old; these mothers, barely pubescent.
In the past, we were autonomous beings. women gave birth in tents. Families were self-sufficient. Meat, abundant at times. Autonomy was based on knowledge acquired in past centuries. Free to think, free to act, survival was the sole priority.
Family ties were the core of our nations, our foundation. Family was the tight circle in which our People grew.
This was before reservations, before assimilation, before residential schools. At one point, there was disengagement.
it could name anything. The names of mountains and rivers. Soft and hard woods. Edible wild berries and those that harm. Wet and powdery snow. The north wind, violent, incessant; the calm sea breeze in the early morning, at twilight. The, Innu, Atikamekw, Wendat, Maliseet, Mi’gmak, and Naskapi language could name every single thing on earth, every human emotion.
poetry is necessary and vital since a people’s literature begins with the orality of its poetry. It is a life force that grabs you by the gut, which tugs at the back of your throat; it is a wild territory of words just waiting to be discovered and scattered by the winds. So here we are. Talk of beauty. Talk of truth. Talk of the world. Take part in our unique perspective of this beautiful and great narrative, in the wealth of these outlooks.
With words, we find and share the beauty that surrounds us, the stories and the different perspectives on the world introduced by each language; of all these characteristics that make us rise and define us in terms of identity. For us, poetry, the language of observation, makes perfect sense, it comes naturally. It is what allows for the understanding of reality in the most fluid manner possible, the most organic.
Aboriginal language tell our story, the places where our ancestors have travelled, however they are unable to name all the modernity, the sudden and swift changes.
Aboriginal language are not often written since they are read by few people. They were practical language, created to name the function of things. They were not language designed for writing, but rather for chanting and speeches. Both of these arts are still the most mastered today. In new Aboriginal literature, we use maternal language to recreate the time of our ancestors, renew our perspective on their gestures, and poetize the vastness of nature. Each word conjures a powerful and real imagery.
IT’S ABOUT TIME
We do not believe that we possess time; we do not divide it into units called seconds, minutes and hours. Longer cycles govern our lives, passages from days to nights, the seasons, cycles of life and death. In the past, we did not have watches and took the necessary time for each activity. Traveling with young children took longer; we would set up camp wherever we stopped. This is what many call Indian time.
This notion of time seen as a continuous movement, long and slow, sometimes creates a difficult convergence between our respective cultures. While modern life seeks to control through addition and subtraction, we are time, we drift with it. All of our myths express a vision of a world to be shared where everything is connected and basks in universal time where the past, present and future are intertwined, since everything that happens, even the smallest elements of this world has an impact on the others: from the explosion of a nuclear reactor in Japan, so far, to the local mining operations, so near, the impacts will affect several generations, seven according to our philosophies.
The past tells us a story. The brutal transformations of the First Peoples, from nomadic to sedentary, from self-sufficient to dependent, from prideful to shameful. Since this story is written in time, it can not be erased. It exists to remind us that the settlement mentality can destroy identities, nations, humans.
A word must be said regarding the inability of this colonial mindset to foster a genuine convergence with the mindset of Others.
To represent all of reality’s beauty and diversity, we stand at the cultures’ junction; our current identity is situated here, within the entanglement of what is possible, within this wealth of miscegenation inherent in a vibrant culture.
Hence, the Aboriginal Being [and art] is developing; it is interacting, open to the world and to exchanges, while remaining firmly rooted to its traditions. Its future may reside in the improvement of this dualism.