I’m not proud to be Native.
I’ve been asked on many occasions “Isn’t someone wearing a Native Pride hat the same as a white guy wearing White Pride clothing?”
Maybe. In that context I can understand the reasoning.
But I also feel that we have become a society of picking sides. You either are for something or against it. There are no grey areas and there is certainly no discussion as to what those grey areas are.
It’s not just the idea of Native Pride of course. In the grand scheme of things this is a minute detail.
Speaking of minute details. It’s NHL playoff time. The time of the year when I infuriate many of my friends by saying that other than my hometown Prince Albert Raiders, I have no favourite team and insisting “whoever drafted most of their players is the team I’m behind.” Apparently there is more honour in choosing a team from a city I’ve never been to filled with players I’ll never meet.
My point is that when viewed as a black and white issue, I’d have to agree that Native Pride clothing is the same as White Pride. And I can understand it to be offensive at worst and tacky at best.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that any mention from a First Nations person of their culture and heritage was met with derogatory actions, beatings, and even jail time. Beyond the horrors of the residential school systems that are only now being brought into the light, I have heard stories in my lifetime in my hometown of kids being given the strap for speaking Cree at school. These weren’t residential schools.
More grey area. What is Native? Indigenous? First Nations?
My views on this differ from many people who I admire and respect. I know what all the terms mean. Discussing them is a column in itself. But for me as a brown face growing up in an area called “Mississippi of the North,” I choose at this time not to nitpick about semantics. That is to say I’ve been called far worse. We have far bigger fish to fry at this time.
So why am I not proud to be Native? For the same reason that as much as I love the Saskatchewan Roughriders I did not proclaim “we did it!” when they won the Grey Cup.
I wasn’t on the field going face to face with 250-pound trained athletes who were trying to take my head off. They did it. I cheered.
To proclaim that I am proud to be Native would be, for me, to accept that we are all the same from coast to coast to coast. As a freelance musician who has worked primarily in the Canadian Aboriginal music scene I have been to more First Nations communities than most AFN chiefs. I’ve sat with the Mi’kmaq of the East Coast, I’ve entertained many tribes of the West Coast and I’ve eaten whale blubber with the Gwich’in people of the far north.
My Cree culture is vastly different from these other cultures. To compare Crees to Gwich’in would be like comparing Russian history and culture to Swedish. For me to say I’m proud to be Native would be like me taking credit somehow for these other distinct cultures. Like someone from Denmark eating perogies and kielbasa and saying “I’m eating some of my traditional food.”
In Saskatchewan alone I can tell you that a Cree from my band, the Big River First Nation, is going to be different from a Cree from Cumberland House. Or La Ronge for that matter. But all have a rich history of their own that deserves to be celebrated. Not to mention the Dene, the Saulteaux, Dakota and Nakota people of this province.
I would never profess to speak for anyone other than myself. Maybe there are some closed minded people who wear a Native Pride hat as a way of saying they are inherently better than all other races. But I have yet to meet one. Rather those I have known who would wear one are usually older men. Those who have endured abuse at residential schools as government funded “educators” did their best to beat the Indian out of the child. Those who have seen times change in their lifetimes.
They wear it because as children they were taught that everything about them was inherently wrong but life has taught them that their culture was in no way inferior to any other culture of this earth. They wear it as a survivor not to assert dominance.
When taken in this context, it is clearly not the same as wearing White Pride clothing.
So I will leave you with this.
I, as a Cree man, unite myself with the other first peoples of this country out of necessity. For the time being, we are viewed as all being the same. We are viewed by many as “Indians” first and individuals second. We are First Nations. We are Native to this land mass we call North America.
As a band member of the Big River First Nation, I and my ancestors are Indigenous to the Treaty 6 territory that stretches from Hudson Bay south past Kindersley, north past Meadow Lake and far into Alberta.
I have a friend who just moved here from New Delhi. He’s an Indian.
Am I proud to be Native? No. But I’m damn proud to be Cree.
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.