As I was procrastinating on Facebook today, I came across an article written titled “Why there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture”, written by Dan David (http://www.mediaindigena.com/dan-david/issues-and-politics/aint-no-such-a-thing). In the article, the author criticizes the kind of “plastic” and crassly consumeristic kinds of “Aboriginal culture” promoted at venues like powwows. The problem, he says, is not simply that the Aboriginal culture found at powwow venues overshadows other kinds but rather – and more radically – he argues that there is no such thing as Aboriginal culture. More specifically, he writes “By falling for this one word, we encourage a process that erases our national identities and helps dissolve us all into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold mush”. As one example, he laments the fact that “Aboriginal Day” has turned into a holiday, sheared of much of its roots of solidarity and turned into fount of tourist attraction superficiality.
Is this actually (or only) what’s going on, though? On the one hand, the author is correct to say that the Canadian government has attempted to “dissolve us into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold much” (also known as “Indians” and to a lesser extent, Metis and Inuit too). On the other hand – as the longstanding national Aboriginal organizations will attest to – “Aboriginal” also serves as a rallying point for the ways in which colonization has impacted our ability to live lives of dignity and happiness. “Aboriginal” isn’t a sell-out term, as David suggests: “A little money and we forgot to stand in unity for our rights, for our existence and uniqueness in this world”. Rather, it has been used as a term of solidarity through which Indigenous peoples, despite our differences, have come to mark our similarities in our resistance to government attempts to eradicate our territories and histories.
David makes a further distinction: between “race” and “culture”. That is, to the extent that we self-identify as Aboriginal we are reinforcing racial stereotypes while as long as we continue to identify with our nations we are being cultural. He writes further:
- [s]trangely, disgustingly, I rarely hear anyone talk about their nations or their nationality anymore. They do on the southern side of another great construct called the international border. Down there, they call themselves the “Ojibway Nation of…” someplace, or “the Seminole Nation of…” someplace else.
There are any number of responses to this, not the least of which is “dude, who are you hanging out with?” But perhaps living in western Canada among the Cree, Metis, Dene Nakoda and Blackfoot, I’m spoiled by being around people who think nationally (or “culturally” as he would put it). Despite this, his solution – to exchange ‘Aboriginal’ for other, more ‘authentic’ Aboriginal names – holds some merit. Indeed, last month the Anishinabek Nation reacted to the renaming of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development by stating that ““We are not Aboriginal, we are Anishinabek,” said Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee. “Trying to lump First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples together might save space on the minister’s business card, but it is disrespectful of the truly distinct nature of the communities with whom he needs to establish better relationships” (APTN News, May 18th, 2012).
So, the point here is not that David’s argument is wrong. Rather, it is incomplete. “Aboriginal” doesn’t necessarily mean sell-out or a lack of unity or uniqueness as David suggests. We can – and should – continue to use the term “Aboriginal” with eyes wide open, employing it for what it’s worth. We have done it for 30 years and before that, for another 100. But – and here I agree with David – we should also be speaking in terms of the distinctive Indigenous nations that make use of the term. Not one or the other, but both. That is, we are – or can be – both Aboriginal and Cree (or Haida or Seminole or Comanche, etc.). Identity is never exhausted by a single use of a term and this is as true for ‘Aboriginal’ as it is for many other terms. Moreover, dismissing it as part of a larger culture of “selling out” misses its many uses over the past 30 plus years in advancing our rights and ideals in the courts, the legislature and in popular culture more generally.
And besides, I can think of worse things than what National Aboriginal Day has turned into. In many of Canada’s larger cities, the day has turned into a massive social and cultural happening, with local and national news media and top singers and entertainers that draw in thousands of people, both Aboriginal and non-. And that produces its own forms of solidarity that are not reducible to “fake” versus “real” culture.