Reconstructing Aboriginal History

Richard Wagamese

At a recent conference on indigenous knowledge I heard speaker after speaker refer to the tremendous spiritual heritage from which aboriginal people spring. While, as an Ojibway, such sentiments raised feelings of pride, esteem and self-worth, I was left troubled. Bothered not so much by the more aboriginally evangelical of the speakers, or by what was said, but rather by a sense of the value of the unspoken.

As aboriginal people, we are taught by our elders, academics, and each other, that our pre-settlement lives were guided by a profound sense of the sacred. I have no argument with this, and in fact, would defend it rigorously. However, we have become somewhat spiritually self-righteous through the years and often overlook the fact that pre-colonial Canada was not all sweet grass, sweat lodges and sunsets. Life was hard. Difficulty brings its accompanying ills. So that no matter how much we espouse the view of ourselves as staunch spiritual tribes and critics it could not have been possible.

Or, at least, contrary to what we tell ourselves – a perpetual condition.

In any human group there are always those less traditional, tribal or true. Our circles at that time – just as now – included thieves, liars, back-sliders, murderers, the immoral and the disbelieving. There were territorial conflicts, wars, civil disputes, arguments and resentment. There had to be. The day in day out life among a kinetic group of people virtually predicates the presence of minor or major inter-personal strife of some kind.

That is not to disrespect the traditional values on which our cultures thrive today. Nor is it to denigrate the incredibly empowering teachings tribal elders and wisdom keepers continue to pass on to new generations. And it is certainly not an attempt to down play the role of ceremony, ritual and spirituality in our homes and communities. Rather it’s an effort to redirect the way in which aboriginal people regard themselves and their histories. Because denial is a degenerative disease that in the end results in a distorted reality, a false perspective, and a less than spiritually enhancing condition.

For us to continue to romanticize our past is to create grave dangers for the generations to follow. As long as we continue to perpetuate the belief that we were perfect spiritual nations until the invasion of North America we continue to inculcate the belief amongst ourselves that we need to be perfectly spiritual today. Such idealism has provided us with a foundation for the establishment of powerful healing circles, centers, practices and organizations but it has also created a potentially harmful cultural mythology. A mythology that states that anything less than purely traditional is not traditional at all.

To deny the fact that our pre-settlement lives were often less than perfect creates the illusion that in order to truly be aboriginal today we need to assume the same emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual personas.

Such is not the case.

You do not need to wear braids to qualify as aboriginal. You do not need to be able to dance pow wow, drum, sing or make a dream catcher to qualify. You do not need to own a traditional name. In fact, because of history and its effects, you do not even need to be able to speak your language, know your tribal lineage, or have been to a sweat lodge, sundance or pipe ceremony to count either. More importantly, you do not need to completely understand the traditional underpinnings of your particular culture to be an aboriginal person. All you need is the belief. Being Indian, like being Sikh, Maori, Serb or Canadian is an inside truth you carry with you always.

When we insist that our tribal lives were models of purity, morality, dignity and the profound we place incredible pressure on our contemporary lives. We create a deep sense of cultural guilt. To fail short of the ideal, to make mistakes, to not know certain things, to not know how to do certain things, raises feelings of unworthiness, defensiveness, anger and guilt. Behaviors arise that are less than culturally positive.

We create disillusioned youth. We create ambivalent communities. We create politicians motivated more on proving their aboriginality than the political agendas they are elected to carry out. We create a professional elite more intent on networking and displaying themselves aboriginally than effecting change in their neighborhoods and communities. We create culturally embarrassed individuals who display culture and spirituality more than actually practicing them. We create academics that would rather spend their lives studying their people than finding themselves. We create organizations whose board members spend more time squabbling over who knows more about traditional matters and approaches than performing the functions they were designed for. We create fractured rather than cohesive communities.

What we need to know and to understand is that it’s okay to admit to a less than utopian history. It’s okay to know that our pre-colonial societies had failings. Okay to make the admission of humanity that included all of humanity’s foibles and peccadilloes. Okay to say to each other privately and publicly that somewhere along our family line a member erred and was punished. Permissible to acknowledge that presence of unalterable wrongs in our clan structures and societies. When we do that we allow ourselves the freedom to be less than perfect.

Because despite the inherent failings it has been our spiritual way that has allowed us to survive. It has been our spiritual way that spared us the indignity of assimilation. Our various cultural ceremonies and rituals have provided the foundation upon which we have built our present vitality and on which we will move into a brighter future. It is the sweet grass way, the drum, and the way of the pipe that sustains us. That will always remain true.

But to be able to admit to each other first and Canadians later that we have remained strong and vital despite the shortcomings we recognize in our histories, shows a people confident, esteemed and capable of governing themselves and blazing the path towards their own future. Honesty breeds strength. Denial fosters failure. Our spiritual heritage will always remain the root of who we are but we need to practice it in the light of the truth our own histories. Histories less romanticized than realized. The image of the bronzed countenances of the native man and woman will only become true fixtures of the Canadian consciousness when aboriginal people themselves admit to the true nature of their pre-settlement lives.

The words we speak when we speak of our spiritual heritage will bear more weight and relevance when they come from the recognition of our unspoken truths. The truth of our humanity. As aboriginal people we have only ever been human – and that’s not likely to change in the very near future. We need only learn to say it.