COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Oct. 5, 2012

Jessica
Jessica Iron Joseph
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With different cultures come different behaviours. Life is much easier for everyone when we understand each other better, so I’ll try my best to outline a few ways First Nations in Saskatchewan and non-Native people are different, from my perspective as a Cree lady raised here.

 

Upon Greetings

When First Nations people greet each other, the first question upon introductions (using full names) is usually: “Where are you from?” when your last name is mentioned. Many First Nations people have last names that are specific to certain areas/reserves. For example: Irons (like myself) tend to be from Canoe Lake. Josephs (like my husband’s family) tend to be from Whitefish/Big River, but of course not always. Many First Nations people walk around with a running catalogue of last names in their head, and as such can place a person to their reserve with a high degree of accuracy. This can be an impressive feat as there are 75 reserves in Saskatchewan alone! Obviously, over time — usually due to marriages, names tend to sprout up in unlikely places, so people are always interested to discover where you are from.

Once they do, the next question will almost always be either: a) “Who is your mom/dad?” or b) “Are you related to so and so…?” in an effort to establish a connection to the person they are talking to. A short or long conversation then ensues, based on what information is traded. Many times people who are introduced this way will discover they are related! Although maybe distantly.

I’m sure these same questions are often asked between non-Native people, but in my experience as a Cree lady, talking to non-Native people, one of the first questions that is always asked of me is: “What do you do for a living?” which is remarkably different from what I am asked in the First Nations world.

I think interest in my occupation is partly based on sheer curiosity. Maybe it’s only a habitual conversation-starter, but often it seems to be a sort of social stratification.

Naturally, as we merge together, these questions will cross cultural lines. However, these are pretty standard introductions across both groups. Watch and see! You might have a little chuckle when you do.

 

Extended Family

For First Nations people, there are in-laws, aunties, uncles, grandparents and cousins. That’s the extent of it. There are no first cousins, second cousins, twice-removed, great aunts or anything quite so complex. In fact, often relations are not related by blood. For instance, every single one of my close friends is called “Auntie” by my children, because my close friends are like my sisters. I had many Aunties growing up for the same reason, though most of them weren’t related to me. However, I still consider the children of those aunts my cousins.

One of my cousins often lived with me growing up and I considered her my sister. We still call each other sister, though I’ve had to outline to many of my non-Native friends precisely how she’s related to me.

The same goes for family blends. You will almost never hear a First Nations person calling their step-child a “step-child” or insisting new siblings use the terms “step-brother”, “step-sister”, “step-mother” or “step-father”. You will also likely never hear the terms “half-brother” or “half-sister.” Of course, there are non-Native families that practise this too, but it is extremely rare to find these terms in First Nations settings.

 

Humour

First Nations people laugh at everything and everybody. If you find yourself being teased at the mercy of an Indian, it is usually because they really like you. It is not an offensive thing. My family makes fun of me for absolutely everything, and I know it is a good thing. It is because I am loved.

There is a strong sense of community in First Nations culture and laughter often joins people together. It is also humbling, because ego and arrogance are very much frowned upon. In that sense, laughter helps to maintain equality.

There are definitely times when people will retain a certain reverence and seriousness — particularly times where ceremonies or Elders are involved. However, even then, you will often find an Elder cracking a joke to lighten the mood and keep the atmosphere jovial.

It is also not uncommon to see people laughing at a wake, in the days leading up to someone’s funeral. It’s not disrespectful. Death is certainly a very serious thing, but most First Nations people want to support a grieving family and one way to do that is to distract and comfort them with laughter. In the past, when I’ve had to grieve a family member’s or friend’s death, it was always nice to have a break from a crying jag. A silly joke always did wonders to ease my broken heart.

There is more to why First Nations people laugh at wakes, but I’m not always at liberty to explain things. I may be a writer and I can easily speak about superficial nuances, but I am not an Elder and thus have not been honoured with the permission to speak on all topics. Besides which, I’m still very young and have much learning to do.

Perhaps you were already aware of all these differences. Or maybe I just shed a ray of understanding upon you. In any case, I hope you can appreciate a few profound disparities between these two cultures.

 

It is not a bad thing to be different. We all are, in our own ways. It is however important that we attempt to understand each other. Respect and acceptance are two keys that foster unity.

Organizations: First Nations

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canoe Lake, Big River

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