No such thing as Aboriginal culture?

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 ( 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.

About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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6 Responses to No such thing as Aboriginal culture?

  1. marchwinds says:

    Call me cynical, but as long as the federal government funds “Aboriginal Day,” the events will remain circumscribed by what the government considers to be acceptable NDN culture. For sure, this government would never sponsor any kind of solidarity day, especially not if it encourages Native peoples in this country to come together on issues like controlling their own resources, supporting self determination, or any kind of real economic development in their own territories. Canada’s government continues its long tradition of discouraging any NDN culture that places land and collective good at the centre of its existence, and that will certainly not change anytime soon.

    • We need to stop believing Canada’s government has ever funded anything but what they deem acceptable. The name of the day won’t change that, no name change will suddenly cause the Canadian government to hand over funds and say, “get together and resist us!” So what’s stopping us from turning it into a solidarity day anyway?

  2. BigMmusings says:

    But it isn’t that straightforward, is it, marchwinds. The government has very wide – and very different – parameters regarding what counts as “acceptable” culture. Government would fund a “solidarity day”, it would just depend on what kind. For example, the federal government sponsors the various national Aboriginal organizations, who in turn sponsor all kinds of “solidarity” events. The Conservative government has cut much of that, but it doesn’t mean that governments in the past have not funded such events, even if indirectly. Likewise, what the government thinks its funding and the kinds of power that events such as National Aboriginal Day produce, are two different things. My feeling is that any events that produce a wide and diverse range of Aboriginal society is not a bad thing, whether overtly political or not.

    • marchwinds says:

      No, it’s not a bad thing, but it is not a terribly helpful or transformative thing. It is not going to bring clean drinking water to reserves, and it sure won’t improve employment or do much to close the chasm between mainstream non-Native culture in this country and the great many Aboriginal / Native / First Nations / etc cultures about which most people know nothing…

      • BigMmusings says:

        We agree on that, for sure. My point is that the fact that it won’t lead to those structural changes doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own inherent value (and not necessarily the one originally intended). I agree with Chelsea as well – we can imbue it with meanings that were never intended by government, either. But asking a single day to change century-old policies is a lot to ask, no?

  3. shmohawk says:

    Hey, there, Big M Musings. I thought I’d come over here and post a reply. It’s a bit long. Bear with me. It’s meant as a continuation of a polite conversation and not a personal attack.

    Where to begin… ? Describe for me in one short sentence “Aboriginal culture.” Is it Inuit? Don’t they have their own culture, quite distinct and very different from the others? Do you think they’d agree with whatever description you or I came up with and slapped upon them? Shouldn’t they define their own culture? And, BTW, who appointed you or me god? (that’s a rhetorical question)

    While you’re at it, what’s European culture? Or Canadian culture? How about Asian Culture? What would the Ainu of Hokkaido think about being lumped in with mainland Japanese, or Korean, or Chinese as though they all belonged to one monolithic culture? I know the hill tribes of Taiwan wouldn’t take kindly to it, struggling as they are against similar assimilationist policies as those imposed upon the Ainu by the Japanese government.

    My argument is that it’s lazy thinking to blandly accept the term “Aboriginal culture” as though it’s a reality, or as one writer put it – a mono-culture – encompassing every non-settler across Canada as though distinctions between “Indian, Inuit and Métis” didn’t matter. Or that differences between Mi’kmaq and Mohawk didn’t matter either. I believe they do matter. I believe also that it’s dangerous to think it doesn’t.

    There really are kids out there who don’t know anything about their nations, their histories, or their heritage. They’re our “generation zero.” Our different ancestors saw the threats and sought to preserve our cultures (plural) often against great odds and powerful forces that sought to wipe them out. Shouldn’t we recognize their sacrifices? Shouldn’t we honor them by picking up their struggles? Or should we jump onto the conveyor belt to oblivion and meekly accept the no-name label?

    I think when we allow this no-name label to be stuck on us – or worse when we stick it on ourselves – we accept being a little less distinct, a little less proud, a little less knowledgeable about our own very different cultures.

    You wrote that I got some things right but mostly wrong. Why can’t we be both “Aboriginal” and something else?

    “That is, we are – or can be – both Aboriginal and Cree (or Haida or Seminole or Comanche, etc.)”

    I take it you’re an academic in Alberta. I’ve lived and worked in the Prairies. Horse people from the flat lands of the west are nothing like my farming people of corn, beans and squash in the east. We’re as different from one another as Tatars from eurasia are from the French of Alsace-Lorraine – maybe more. Despite use of the word “Aboriginal,” you can’t make Cree the same as Haida, or the Seminole the same as Cherokee. We are so very different. There’s almost nothing your people have in common with mine, assuming you are a son of the Prairies, other than things every other peoples around the world have in deep historical drawers.

    Your tribe and mine may have the drum in common, but so do the Irish, German and Zulu. Your tribe and mine may have a shared history of colonialism. But that’s about attempts to wipe out our distinct and different cultures – not about fostering commonalities among the victims. That this happened to some extent was an accident, an unintended side-effect. We survived much to the astonishment of the government. We weren’t supposed to make it due to our inferior genetic makeup, our inferior cultures, our inferior beliefs, and our inferior everything. But we showed them by being a lot smarter, tougher and more resilient than they knew.

    You imply with my distinguishing between “race” and “culture,” that I believe that when 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.”

    Nope. Not saying that at all. I’m saying, perhaps not as clearly as I might, that race is also a social construct. It’s a tool used to infer that some people are lesser beings because of language, religion, gender but mostly skin colour. In the past, “race” and “racism” was used by certain groups to rape, massacre, dominate, dispossess and exploit other groups around the world. But today, it’s mostly about preserving white privilege in western societies.

    I wrote about people who didn’t look like Mohawks with their blonde hair and blue eyes. In the past, faced with tremendous racism and discrimination, they might have “passed” for white and made life a little easier for themselves. But they didn’t do that. Bring it on, they seemed to be saying. I’m Mohawk and proud. So I believe it was their culture – their Mohawk culture – that formed their identity and not the usual things that puts into this race or that, such as blonde hair and blue eyes.

    The reason why I wrote my post was to encourage more thinking about education, about our nations and our histories. “Aboriginals” (as though this were a noun) didn’t lead the U.S. Army on a goose chase through the Florida swamps until the U.S. finally gave up the chase. “Aboriginals” didn’t beat back American troops on the Niagara during the War of 1812. “Aboriginals” didn’t stare down more Canadian arms and troops at Oka than were sent to the first Iraq War.

    Learn about yourself, I’m saying. Don’t accept the bland, non-specific, tags that are devoid of weight or meaning. That’s what the term “Aboriginal” means, to me anyway. It’s a modern term, only used generally in Canada since the 1980s. I believe the term “Aboriginal” cuts us off from our ties to our different pasts, our specific histories, our heritages, our identities, our accomplishments, our victories, our pride.

    As a journalist and writer, the meaning of words matter. I see reporters and academics constantly misusing the terms “Aboriginal” and “First Nations” or “native” never actually naming the specific tribe or nation, as though these terms mean the same thing and may be used interchangeably. They do not and may not!

    As a Mohawk, it angers me when I read in newspapers that “Aboriginals” or “natives” at Kanehsatà:ke were doing this or that. “Aboriginals” have nothing to do with Kanehsatà:ke. I know they threw in the word “native” for no other reason than to mix things up a bit. It makes me want to call up that reporter and scream:

    “We’re Mohawk, you flipping idiot! There isn’t a Métis or Inuit within 40 miles of this place. Why the hell are you using the term ‘Aboriginal’? Is it too bloody hard to type six letters: m-o-h-a-w-k! It’s a perfectly good word, y’know. It’s even in the dictionary!”

    Use of “Aboriginal” almost without thinking as though it can be used at every instance is lazy, does nothing to educate the average Canadian – or our own peoples – about the tremendous differences, diversity and beauty among our own nations. That’s what my post was trying to get people to think about.

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