“Wow, you guys are still alive?!”
This was the response from my friend from Denmark after I explained to him what my “nationality” was.
I had the honor of being a part of an international music gathering in southeast China in 2004. I became especially close with the group from Denmark as they spoke perfect English. My new friend Jesper was wondering where my relatives originated from as my skin was darker than what he expected from Canadians.
I explained first that I was Cree. I might as well have said Klingon for all he knew of Cree people. I elaborated by saying “first peoples of Canada”, then “Native American”; finally, I sighed and said “Indian.”
It was an eye opener for sure. I laughed as I was explaining who I was to him. I thanked him for his questions. I was thrilled to be able to educate at least one person who actually believed that my people had long been extinct. I felt no anger or resentment towards him.
Just like I feel no anger or resentment toward the University of Regina cheerleaders who thought it would be a good idea to dress up as cowboys and Indians and post the photo on Instagram.
It’s not an eye opener. It’s nothing new. What is disappointing is that these are post-secondary students. These individuals would consider themselves to be “educated.”
How can I be upset with these individuals if I went through the same education system as they did? The same education system that spent more time talking about long dead civilizations than it did the still very much alive First Nations cultures of their own back yard.
I remember sitting in class as a kid and hearing that the Plains Cree “were hunter/gatherers” and thinking “what’s this ‘were’ BS? I’m right here by the pencil sharpener.”
I remember a kid getting in trouble for using his fingers to slant his eyes and calling himself Chinese. There were no Chinese kids in the school. But the teacher was right to scold the child.
Later, some kids pretended to be Indians outside on the playground. The usual savage hooting and hollering and dancing ensued. This was OK.
I grew up with kids playing me. The same way they play Star Wars. Or Transformers. Or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Or any other fictional group of characters for that matter.
You can still find toys and indeed costumes if you still want to play Indian.
You can find Indian toys and costumes here on the Canadian prairies where we have the largest concentration of First Nations people as well as the largest concentration of non-First Nations people telling us we are being over sensitive.
The Canadian prairies. Where you won’t hear anyone utter the “n-word” because, even though we have a small black population, we know it’s racist and insensitive. Where my childhood friend got in trouble for playing Chinese in a school without a single Chinese person.
The Canadian prairies where you can’t go down the street without seeing a First Nations person. But I bet you’ve all heard a few good Indian jokes in your time.
In this social media age I see a lot of very outspoken people on Facebook and Twitter. Anytime you see the words “First Nations” or “Aboriginal” in the headlines, you can be sure to have a lot of angry status updates, comments and tweets from some non-Aboriginal people. I’ve read many of them. There is not a single First Nations person on their friends list.
Yet they know what it is to be me. They watched Dances With Wolves.
I can’t be angry with them. From birth they were inundated with caricatures of First Nations people. Indian toys right next to Harry Potter toys. Then they grow into sports and see cartoon mascots of Indians.
We are not costumes. We are not characters. We are not extinct.
I understand why my friend Jesper thought we were extinct. I listened to him. I spoke with him. We learned so much from each other.
I have read every letter and comment on my writing. Even the negative ones.
I have spent a lifetime listening to the viewpoints of those who believe that First Nations people are inherently below the rest of “civilization.”
You may not agree with me, but by reading this you have shown that you are open minded enough to at least listen to a different opinion. I know I certainly need to remind myself to do that.
Kevin Joseph is a Prince Albert freelance writer. His column appears every fourth Friday in rotation with Jessica Iron Joseph, Sharon Thomas and Lori Q. McGavin.