Probably one of the biggest barriers between cultures are simple misunderstandings. Then again, when two cultures have completely different worldviews, simple misunderstandings can dramatically snowball into assumptions, confusion and ultimately, offended parties.
This is precisely what happened at the U of S recently.
A pipe ceremony was scheduled for Sept. 3 to launch Indigenous Voices, a staff and faculty development program in Aboriginal Education and both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parties were invited to attend. However, several protocols were listed in an email, for those considering attending.
A few of these points referenced protocols specifically for women, which will happen with any First Nations ceremony, particularly in this part of Canada. I usually try to avoid writing about protocol, since I’m not a cultural advisor or Elder by any means. However, in this case, I will address these points as best I can because they’re now being discussed on campus and on national news (CBC), so I hope any First Nations readers will bear with me for trying to dispel misinformation and attempt to pacify, in my own way, a very hot topic.
Kevin Flynn, an associate English professor took umbrage at the list and attacked the traditions around the pipe ceremony in an op-ed in the September edition of the campus newspaper, On Campus News (OCN), saying these practices marginalized women. He felt that “some Aboriginal belief systems register the same horror of women’s genitalia as do the Abrahamic religions.” He then mentioned the misogyny of certain passages in Genesis, Leviticus and Ezekial.
Flynn goes on to argue that excluding particular women is no different than excluding other minorities or specific groups such as disabled, black, lesbian, or redheaded groups. As such, he urges the university to step in and demand these practices be changed, or at the very least unite people to resist these ceremonies, “in the interest of equality and common decency.” To do any less, he believes, would be to reinstate paternalistic attitudes and the subordination of women.
Before I tear apart Prof. Flynn’s argument, I would like to point out that the feminist in me is very touched and honoured that a man would try to argue on behalf of women. I believe he had good intentions, and he should be lauded for trying to raise standards for women everywhere.
Unfortunately, in this particular instance, he was completely wrong and would have benefited from a little preemptive research on his part. Because he didn’t, Aboriginal groups -- including women -- are affronted that he would so willingly jump to conclusions.
I am familiar with some of the scripture he refers to. There have been passages in the Bible and, also the Qur’an, which I’ve been reading lately, that annoy the feminist in me. Although, some would argue that scripture is always subject to interpretation.
Regardless, I’m still a big fan of God and I think the churches are really beginning to reflect the advances women have made in society.
In any case, you simply cannot compare bible text to this situation. I grew up with Cree customs and protocol. If there truly were any subordination of women, I’d be quite comfortable attacking it. But there isn’t. In fact, I don’t even have to read the email to know that this professor was making giant assumptions and taking things entirely out of context.
In traditional Cree culture, women are treated with utmost respect for their life-giving abilities and as such are often put on a higher pedestal than men, particularly in regards to ceremonies.
Women are never “excluded” in the sense of how we understand it, as in ostracized, which imparts a very negative connotation, inciting feelings of shame, humiliation and remorse. But there are instances when women do not participate and it is never construed as a bad thing by anyone involved, including women.
I won’t say any more, because that’s not my job. I merely wanted to clarify that very important distinction.
Now I’m not certain emailing a list of protocols was a wise thing to do. It’s a rather informal approach to formal practices, and will probably need to be addressed.
However, let’s take a short trip down memory lane. If you read this column often enough, you’ll know I’ve talked about the effect of residential schools and cultural practices that were previously banned.
This means that even today, there are many Cree people who are only just learning traditional practices, because their families were denied the opportunity until recent decades. Prof. Flynn’s op-ed could potentially be very damaging to those Aboriginals who have read it and misinterpret the sanctity of pipe ceremonies, based on his uninformed opinion. Not to mention how he has adversely affected those non-Aboriginals who have yet to partake in a pipe ceremony.
In his rant, Flynn completely missed the point of the pipe ceremony, which was to be used as a gesture of good will and faith, and to guide and bless those diverse groups that would be working together, advancing the interests of all involved, in a peaceful way. He effectively rejected this gesture, and further exacerbated the situation by insisting the university take offense and also condemn pipe ceremonies.
While he believes he is a promoter of equality, he is forgetting one important detail: it is precisely this type of vainglorious judgment that drives a colonial mentality. Funny how he tried to advocate for equality and then stumbled right into paternalism. Denigrating a culture one knows little about will not make another’s more superior.
First Nations practices are not inferior, and nor do they need to be altered, changed or improved to suit the arrogant demands of an inerudite objector.
This could have all been handled discreetly, and he could have had all the answers he needed by simply asking the right person “why?” He hoped to spark a conversation by running to the presses, but I think he will find that he has outraged the Aboriginal community on campus and thus become the unwitting subject of much criticism.
Professor Flynn missed a golden opportunity to embrace a different way of thinking and viewing people. With thousands of Aboriginals on campus and connections that still could be made, I hope he will get another chance.