Native peoples in Canada are portrayed as tragedies in the media. We get one story about the residential schools, one story about missing women, another story about how their cultural traditions are being destroyed… It seems as though they are bound for misery.
Not at all. Some communities are blooming. Native youths are resisting. Elderly Aboriginals are smiling at them.
Background of the Native Cultural Resistance
I am going to an event by COOP Le Milieu called “Indigenous Knowledge Sharing: First Nations and Tibetans.” I look around and see the tables on which colourful beads, jewellery, drawings and shawls for sale are displayed. I also find on a table the business card of an organization called Native Montreal. How exciting! They offer Aboriginal language classes; I’m fascinated by language revival and preservation projects. I ask if there is an exhibitor representing Native Montreal and I’m introduced to an elderly Mohawk woman:
“I’m not from Native Montreal but I’ll answer your questions the best I can.”
Beverly (not her real name) is a Mohawk elder, a former teacher, a former judge and has worked in the correctional system. She is from Kahnawake, south of Montreal.
“Yes, there are plenty of Aboriginal language revival projects. When I was a child in school, there was none of that,” said Beverly. “In school, I was taught I was a savage.”
In Beverly’s youth, Canadian schools taught that Aboriginals were essentially barbarians and needed to be civilized through adopting western European culture. This colonial policy was especially enforced in residential schools. Her testimony reminded me that of a white French-Canadian politician I know from Oka-Kanesatake, another Mohawk region. He told me that when he was in elementary school, the teachers used to say: “If you want to know what devils look like and how they act, just look at Mohawks”.
Beverly also talks about how such a colonial mentality damage Native men.
“You know, when I used to work in the correctional system, I worked with a lot of Native men. I taught them how to be Native men and that being Native doesn’t make them essentially bad people.”
The Situation of the Mohawk Language and Customs in Kahnawake
I have heard of elementary schools and high schools that teach Mohawk but Beverly tells me about a school in Kahnawake that has a Mohawk language immersion program. She also says that on Fridays, the students and the staff of this school, both Mohawks and non-Mohawks, wear traditional Mohawk clothing. She could barely hide the delight on her face. Also, signs in Kahnawake are in English and Mohawk. Beverly tells a story about how bilingual signs could confuse people.
“When I was a judge in charge of solving traffic-related cases, a man contested a ticket he got for burning three stop signs in a row. I told him:
’–Did you drive by three stop signs without stopping?
–Yes but they were test signs.
–What do you mean? They were regulation size, they were visible, they said stop…
–They also read “Testan.’”
“Testan” in Mohawk means “Stop.”
Hope for the future
Beverly is optimistic about the future: “The Montreal mayor, Denis Coderre, recognized Montreal, our original hunting grounds, as being originally Aboriginal land. This gives me hope that we can someday get our land back. Well, we can’t get it back because they [descendant of European colonizers] destroyed it and made it ugly. We can at least hope to get a say in our home country.”
Aboriginal communities are getting back on their feet; that is the story we should be hearing more often.