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[Guest Column] Culture, cross or not, it’s who we are
Note: This is the first part of a two part series.
Canadian Aboriginal cultures are many, diverse, unique and mysterious. Aboriginal Nations have for thousands of years sustained vibrant and rich cultural identities in Canada.
When I think of some of these cultures my thoughts conjure up a multitude of images, including various symbols, numerous ceremonies, languages, celebrations, music, dance, art, healing, traditional medicines, offerings, prayers, dress, expressions of spirituality, individual communities histories, values and traditions.
I see those people chosen by their own people sharing these things with others based on what they have been told by their own people as to just what they can share and how it is shared and for what purpose. The Elders are chosen because of their wisdom, knowledge, leadership and experience and teach these values and insights to the next generation.
Unfortunately, there are imposters doing so for their personal gain, sharing false information, minimizing the significance, distorting the meaning, causing much confusion and hurt. The Aboriginal community refers to these people as spiritual vampires who will use whatever means necessary to turn a profit.
They profit from our cultures and must be held accountable for their continual fraud and desecration. Each culture is extremely complex, significantly valuable and is owned by the people and ancestry of the people of that particular culture no matter where the culture is located geographically. There is no more an Aboriginal culture just as there is no European culture or Asian culture.
The owners of each culture have the responsibility and authority to determine if they want to share their culture with others, and if they do, who will do so. There will be agreement on when and where this sharing will take place and what parts of their culture they wish to share and which parts they chose not to share.
In some rare cases the people have delegated someone outside their community that has earned their respect and trust to share their culture with others and this action is considered an extreme honor and privilege.
What I am describing has nothing to do with the concept of Aboriginal awareness training, sharing and learning. Aboriginal awareness addresses facts, statistics, geography, laws, legislation, policies, trends, current realities, governance, health, education, housing, reserves, treaties, land claims, populations, community diversity, crime, incarceration, definitions, challenges, demise of languages, history of invasions, consultation protocols, wars, military alliances, frauds, thefts, attitudes, controls, isolations, poverty, despair, anger, oppression, marginalization, communications, economic development, mutual benefits, residential schools, child welfare, truth and reconciliation commission, treaty land entitlements, impact of industrialization, the end of traditional life styles, access to opportunities, training and employment, inclusion, participation in mainstream societies, taxation, elections, decision making and the list goes on and on. All this has nothing to do with a particular culture, is non-confrontational and when presented the right way can be fun and a great day of learning.
So why do we need to make the effort to learn about others? The more we know the more comfortable we become.
We hear the following: When you don’t think or believe like me then you are at the very least weird, wrong, or flawed, or at worst, evil, and in some cases you may even be considered an infidel, savage or less than human.
Every culture is sacred, very special and must be respected as such. Individuals unauthorized and/or unqualified to teach and share individual distinctive cultures or to “whitewash” all Aboriginal cultures as the same are doing great harm and demonstrating much ignorance and disrespect to the owners of those cultures.
Attempting to compare the Inuit culture with the Métis culture would be ridiculous and simply unbelievable. Cross-cultural training in a workshop environment by unsanctioned non-Aboriginal persons teaching non-Aboriginal participants suggests this is what is being done. Whenever I am asked to do this kind of training I always ask which culture a particular client is interested in learning about and there is a long extended pause before them asking, “Ah, what do you mean?” Aboriginal people are often asked, “Do you speak Indian?” The answers should be “Do you speak European?” and so it goes.
I am sadden, along with so many other Aboriginal people, especially nationally known and respected Elders, that there are non-Aboriginal unsanctioned so called “cross-cultural awareness trainers” out in the business world expounding their ignorance to an innocent audience with no regard to the thievery and certainly no respect for the Aboriginal people that own the very cultures they are attempting to teach to other non-Aboriginal people. Here is where we get the inevitable “whitewashing and amalgamation” of all Aboriginal cultures and the real harm begins. How is it that these self-proclaimed experts could possibly know the intricacies of one First Nation culture for example let alone know all the details and nuances of a multitude of First Nation cultures?
I know Elders that are 35 years old and have been in training their whole lives and other Elders in their 80s that are still learning. There are a lot of old, grey and wrinkled people out there, and I am one of them, but I am not an Elder. I am just old. More importantly I have never been sanctioned by any Aboriginal community to talk about their culture.
The audacity and disrespect shown by these people is really quite incredible and to actually accept payment for such fraudulent work should disgust any reasonably informed person.
I asked this question of hundreds of people from across Canada, including non-Aboriginal executives and leadership:
“Do you think it is right and/or appropriate for a non-Aboriginal person to be facilitating cross-cultural awareness training?”
The overwhelming response was “No...Never…or How insulting…or How disgusting… or How disrespectful… or Oh my God… You can’t be serious.”
In many cases I was asked… “Robert, what are you going to do about this?”
My response was. Why me? The respondents said “You, because that is what you do! And so this article is me doing what I am expected to do.
Are these so-called cultural experts deemed culturally competent, and who is it that determines their cultural competencies? Have they passed some kind of exam? Has a particular Aboriginal community agreed to, chosen and sanctioned them to teach non-Aboriginals about their one unique culture?
Maybe they consider themselves to be “professional inter-culturalists.” There are those “inter-culturalists” that work in the international cultural training world. Some consider themselves to be “cultural navigators”; at least that is what they call each other.
Around the world, a person from their own culture conducts the cultural training they are teaching about. Why should the standard be any different here in Canada? Just because we are all cut from the same genetic cloth does not mean we are all the same and it is the differences that make each of us so very valuable as the “being” in human being.
It is OK to talk about ourselves and to share with others what we are all about, but we must not talk about others, especially without their permission, otherwise all you are hearing is called gossip or rumor. How much are you willing to pay for that?
Learning about Canada’s Aboriginal cultures is such an important part of our national identity, and our efforts at understanding each other and bringing about reconciliation between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people is the objective.
It is critical that the right people do this sharing of such important information in the right way. This is not an exercise in blame and guilt and pointing fingers at the “white man” for all the atrocities and oppressions perpetrated over hundreds of years. This is about coming together for the mutual well being and benefit of all Canadians and most certainly for the long-term benefit of the country we all love so very much.
Helping Elders explain, teach, interpret and communicate more effectively is an important and essential service many non-Aboriginal people can be involved with and it is encouraged and supported. Finding sanctioned Elders willing and able to share can be a challenge. Not impossible though, when the communities are approached with respect, sincerity expressed and trust established.
The very best way to demonstrate respect is to be able to show the Aboriginal people you meet that you have actually taken a little time to learn a little about them. That is the Aboriginal awareness component I mentioned earlier and has nothing to do with “culture”.
The Aboriginal people need to know that you know why they are where they are today and why they are the way they are today. They need to know that you know how they came to be where they are today. Can you show empathy and compassion for their circumstances? Are you aware of the dysfunction, destitution, despair and the need for hope in their communities?† Are you equally well informed about all the wonderful success stories, awards and achievements by Aboriginal people in Canada? All this has nothing to do with any particular culture.
Part two of Robert Laboucane’s article will be published next month.
Robert Laboucane is a Cross-Cultural trainer and speaker with ripplefx. You may contact him via his web site at www.ripplefx.ca
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