COLUMN: Kevin Joseph — March 21, 2014

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Kevin Joseph
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Kevin Joseph

“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.

Organizations: First Nations, University of Regina, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Denmark, China, Canada

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  • Namcy
    March 23, 2014 - 12:15

    Once again Kevin you have shown the courage to speak out about the lingering and persistant attitudes that some believe have gone away or at lead improved - a generalized perception that Canada has be kind to "their Aboriginals". And it maybe that many "canadians" are very concerned when they learn about some of the past transgressions of their ancestors or their governments. And maybe they wonder "what can I do about it?" Or maybe they just think "thats ancient history...why do they keep going on about it?" Well we have all heard the saying " history repeats" and any history buff or academic will know there is truth behind this....lessons will repeat until they are learned. There were many opportunities for the original immigrants who landed on the shores of these lands hundreds of years ago. Welcomed by the multitude of diverse Indigenous nations the modern day concept of multicultural already a way of life for us. We knew that when you enter into anothers "home nation territories" there were proper ways to behave - respect, kindness, sharing....to name a few. It is like what you would expect when visitors entered into your home, think about it...so if you know your history and how the "visitors" first enteted our home, Turtle Island, you may understand why we continue to speak about our history. You see, in my understanding, it could have been so much better back in the day if the original visitors were able to enter our homes with the mindfulness of modern day ideas of multiculturalism... Even though Canada has declared and legislated rights for "their Aboriginals" pointing the finger at ither nations for their human rights violations, I wonder why there is such a knee jerk defensive attitude by many Canadians when we speak our truth about was was, was is and what wil be. Denial is a powerful weapon against the truth. history.....repeating.

  • Ivy
    March 22, 2014 - 13:20

    I enjoy your columns Kevin. You write eloquently of what we experience daily. And like another reply states "we can't change them" but we can change our response to it hence, change how we let it affects us. It may only be one person at a time that u educate but there is the rippling effect. Thank you.

  • Duane Janzen
    March 22, 2014 - 13:15

    May I ask a few questions of Kevin and have them perceived not in an angry manner, but rather as an opposing view to his article? First of all, Kevin mentions having to sigh as he explains to his newfound European friend that he is 'Indian' rather than 'First peoples of Canada' or 'Native American'.. I would LOVE to have had Kevin with me for the thousandth time that I explained to people that I come from a Mennonite heritage. If you really would like to see some baffled expressions, try to tell a girl at the pub that you're Mennonite and reassure her that the ride home wont be via horse and buggy. Please, Kevin, do you understand that no matter which politically correct name tag you wish to bear, being misunderstood by non-North American cultures is not exclusive to 'Indians'? Regarding your segment on the U of R cheerleaders, I fully agree. Did no one pause, for even a second in the planning of this event to think, 'Maybe this isn't a good idea?' This was a empty headed decision at best, however I must caution you against becoming sanctimonious when you preach of their ignorance. There have been so many times that I have been excused for my opposing opinion towards aboriginal entitlement because I was simply 'educated' in the system and incapable of critical thought. I have read your article in full, yet I still take issue with several of your main points. This is, however, NOT because I merely accept the teachings of the institution, but rather because I have heard your opinion and choose to oppose it. Please don't think that all who might differ from you are only so because they are sheep. Next, you mentioned that there were no 'Chinese' kids in school? Chinese or not, I could almost guarantee that there were nationalities present in your classroom as a child. Canada is a diverse and wonderful country made up of many different cultures and nationalities, however, the First Nations insist on sorting everyone into camps of either Aboriginal or Non-Aboriginal. As a Mennonite, I don't mind being grouped with the Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian and 'even Aboriginals' because it is not the color of my skin nor the persecution of my people that defines who I am. You commented that the Plains Cree were studied as 'long dead'.. 'Hunter/Gatherers' in school. I think that you may be misreading what was being taught here in that the courses were referring to the nomadic 'hunter/gatherer' way of life being 'long dead' and not the people. Never has the Canadian educational system ever omitted or denied the existence of it's aboriginal peoples. From every high school native studies class to the graduate program at the U of S, there are many avenues upon which you can learn native history. http://www.usask.ca/cgsr/grad_programs/programs/NS.php There far fewer sources from which you can learn Mennonite history. You then talked of the kids playing cowboys and Indians on the playground at recess. You called their enactments 'the usual savage hooting and hollering and dancing'. Would you believe that as children we also played Army vs. Navy, Airplanes vs. Tanks, Gretzky vs. Lemieux (I never wanted to be Lemieux because he played for Pittsburgh), Puppies vs. Kitties, Rough Riders vs. Lions, and many other juvenile games. I wonder, to this day, if Lemieux ever resented me for not wanting to play for Pittsburgh? I won't deny that there hasn't been blatant and malicious racism towards aboriginals, but I hardly think that some kids on the playground, nor some ditzy cheerleaders from the UofR had malicious intent when they donned the mantle of 'Indian'. I have heard a few good 'Indian' jokes Kevin.. most of them from Indians themselves. Short of the Newfies, I have never met a more comical people than the Indians that I know. There's a few stuffy Mennos who could take a good lesson in self awareness and humility from the aboriginal peoples in Saskatchewan. Don't think that I can't laugh at myself just as well as I can laugh at others if humor is tempered with common sense. All of that said, I guess my main points are these; 1) I don't agree with you and that's o.k, but please don't think that it's because I'm a racist. I'm just different. 2) Learn to laugh at yourself without sacrificing your confidence. EVERY person has value, EVERY person is unique and that's what makes life fun!! 3) Don't dwell upon the past. I will get you nowhere in the future. My Grandparents all lost siblings and parents to Bolshevik bullets before they escaped Russia. They chose to look forward rather than back so that their children and grandchildren could hopefully not experience nor bear the burden of what they had to when their sisters and brothers were slaughtered in the dirt beside them. 4) Please don't think that all Caucasians are as vacuous as the cheerleading team from the UofR. We may have opposing views, but not all are without thought. 5) Please don't waste your time segregating Aboriginal and Non-aboriginals. It removes from me my heritage and culture. I am firstly and proudly Canadian and then Mennonite by heritage. This type of segregation and labelling reminds me of Dr.Seuss's story 'the Sneeches' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sneetches_and_Other_Stories Whether we're star bellied or not, we're all blessed to live in this amazing country and should hesitate and be grateful before we start taking that for granted.

    • sam sahm
      March 23, 2014 - 10:06

      well written...I'm a treay indian in my 6th decade, and it gets pretty discouraging to see our young people give this disease so much ink..what I've learned over the years is that this type of exposure regarding our differences only serves to widen the gap, and create more resentment. Race is just a small part of what we need to understand when it comes to co-existing cultures. The melting pot description of our country, couldn't be further from the truth. We don't melt away our skin color or our souls. I find the simplest thing to do is think of life as a lava lamp. you can let the colored mass lay on the bottom and let the white oil have its way or you can plug into life and be involved...the colors will never mix, but they can move through life gracefully...And I give a hats off to all the non aboriginal workers I've worked beside. The silly actions and rhetorical words from both sides doesn't change anything...If you feel you're being unfairly targeted because of your race, speak up, stand tall, grind it beneath your heel, because it's cowards that attack this way, and you only serve their purpose by responding with indignance..have a good day..

    • sam sahm
      March 23, 2014 - 10:08

      well written...I'm a treay indian in my 6th decade, and it gets pretty discouraging to see our young people give this disease so much ink..what I've learned over the years is that this type of exposure regarding our differences only serves to widen the gap, and create more resentment. Race is just a small part of what we need to understand when it comes to co-existing cultures. The melting pot description of our country, couldn't be further from the truth. We don't melt away our skin color or our souls. I find the simplest thing to do is think of life as a lava lamp. you can let the colored mass lay on the bottom and let the white oil have its way or you can plug into life and be involved...the colors will never mix, but they can move through life gracefully...And I give a hats off to all the non aboriginal workers I've worked beside. The silly actions and rhetorical words from both sides doesn't change anything...If you feel you're being unfairly targeted because of your race, speak up, stand tall, grind it beneath your heel, because it's cowards that attack this way, and you only serve their purpose by responding with indignance..have a good day..

  • Allan Ross
    March 22, 2014 - 11:02

    I wish every Aboriginal could read this awesome anology. Kevin has a unique style of writing that makes one see the ill informed and eurocentric attitute of those who perpetuate stereotype. So please share.

  • Anthony Johnston
    March 22, 2014 - 10:26

    Nelson Mandela said he left bitterness and anger behind him, when he was released from prison. Otherwise, he would still be imprisoned. Good article Kevin. I had a similar experience, when traveling in Spain in the 80's. A bus load of fellow travelers tried to guess my nationality. "Eskimo" was the closest guess. But the guessing, caused me to think that I am a citizen of the world.

  • Cynthia Johnson
    March 21, 2014 - 15:21

    Excellent column Kevin! Very well written as usual.

  • RoseOmani
    March 21, 2014 - 14:34

    Very good article I must say, yes I know the feelings too. But I know longer bothered by ignorance as it's the way they were raised. I deserve to happy like everyone else not anymore or any less. That is exactly what I do and besides why waste my precious short time on earth worrying about them. It's never going away I do like you educate people. And I don't take on their stuff I know who I am. Hokahey!

  • albert king
    March 21, 2014 - 13:33

    Thank for expressing how you feel about what you see from your perspective. I do read your columns and look forward to them. They are well written .