There was a time, in the relatively-near past, when Anishinaabe people knew exactly who they were. This was unquestionable.
As early as the early-1900s, we had our language. We had our systems of governance. We had our own Spirituality. We had our own way of life – from how we were born to how we died.
We had so much that was inherently Anishinaabe…
How we raised our children.
How we healed our illnesses.
What we learned and how we were taught.
How we earned our living.
What we harvested and what we ate.
How we lived our lives. How we Loved. How we laughed.
How we treated our Elders.
How we sang, created art… how we entertained and socialized with one another…
The sum of all these things is culture.
“Native Culture” isn’t just a band office program. It isn’t just our annual pow-wow. It isn’t an evening language class or even the summer pow-wow trail. It is the sum of all those things that make us uniquely Anishinaabe, including our traditional teachings, our way of life, how we talk to each other and how we pray to the Creator. Culture is our collective identity and how we see ourselves.
And, it’s sad to say, much of it has been lost to history.
But the loss of culture was not our fault. We have no reason to be ashamed. There is good reason why we lost our way.
It is a well-documented fact that Christianity was forced upon the Anishinaabe and many other First Nations across North America. Early missionaries, including that of the jesuit mission in Garden Village (later the Holy Spirit Mission) were established with the sole purpose of converting the heathen, soulless Indians into good Christians worthy of heaven. Later, the establishment of residential schools, like those in Spanish, Chapleau and Sault Ste. Marie, tore apart our families and community with the forcible removement and systemic abuse of our children. All in the name of assimilation, intolerance and the Lord Jesus Christ.
But this was done so subtly, so systematically, and so successfully, that our people have come to accept that they were Christian and that very little was done to our people as a whole. I’ve heard some survivors say they were grateful for their education at residential school and thankful that their Christian faith guided them through those tough times away from their families.
As a result, we have a whole lot of mixed-up Christians singing pow-wow and hand-drum songs, dancing their hearts out, taking Native language classes and marching for Treaty Rights.
I’m not writing this to discourage those like-minded individuals, who are working to raise their families as Anishinaabe. There are many people out there that have shed their colonial outer garments for an AIM t-shirt. They know the challenges of living a life in search of something more. Trying our hardest to give our children what was kept from us.
We try our hardest, but we don’t think Anishinaabe anymore. In reality, very few Anishinaabe people can actually speak Anishinaabemowin. Those that speak Anishinaabemowin, can think in their language… but mainly about Jesus and their shame of being Indian. Original Sin is something far more profound when you have dark skin.
We need to turn the corner on re-establishing our nationhood and re-defining our inherent, indigenous culture as Anishinaabe people.
I have said many times, we need to gradually assimilate into our own culture. This is something my friend Brian Loukes calls “acculturation”.
This begins through education. We must have the courage to transform our entire education system into a truly Anishinaabe institution.
We need to restore our language. This can only be done through language immersion programs in Anishinaabemowin – the official language of our people. Our children need to be able to think in Anishinaabemowin once again. This doesn’t mean we turn our backs on English. This is the 21st Century. We do have to be proficient in both languages.
Nor do we need to sacrifice principles of good education to find our way back to Anishinaabe culture. We still need to read and write, learn mathematics, science, geography, biology and chemistry. We can all do this in Anishinaabemowin and being mindful of our own world view. We do, however, need to be taught our own history, philosophy and way of life. We need to be educated about our Treaty and inherent rights. We need to be educated in the traditional ways of protecting the environment.
Most importantly, we need to have Faith. We need to have Faith that we, the Anishinaabeg, are as important as any other nation on this Earth. We must have Faith that our language and culture is just as valuable as any other. We have Faith in our abilities to govern ourselves and teach ourselves.
We have to give up our reliance on others, including the government. We can indeed be self-sufficient and prosperous, economically, socially and culturally.
But Faith is one of the problems. With the dominance and influence of Christianity in our communities, we won’t be addressing Faith anytime soon.
You see, the Anishinaabe people have our own Faith and spiritual way of life. For all intents and purposes, we have our own religion. Our entire society, including our language and culture, are deeply rooted in Spirituality. These are the original teachings and way of life of our ancestors, Gte Anishinaabeg. We have a society expressly dedicated to living and protecting this way of life called the Midewiwin. This beautiful society keeps many of the most profound teachings of the Anishinaabe, including our Creation Story, the philosophy of Mno-Bimaadiziwin and the Seven Grandfather Teachings. These teachings are only the tip of a very immense iceburg that is the full expanse of Anishinaabe belief, custom, Spirituality and culture. Much of it remains totally unknown to 99 per cent of Anishinaabe people.
Many Christians, Anishinaabe or not, are not willing to trust in their own inherent belief systems. The teachings of the Church are so ingrained in our society, so well instituted in our families and communities – it may never be shed in favour of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality.
Assimilation and Christianity has been so subtle, so systematic, and so successful that we no longer see that there is anything wrong. We can go about our lives, sending our kids to school. We do our best to learn about “Native Culture”, taking Ojibwe language classes and drumming and dancing on the weekend. Come Sunday, after confession, we can settle down to our nice family dinner with the confidence that we will go to heaven. Confident that St. Peter, will meet us at the Pearly Gates and welcome us with open arms.
I wonder what pow-wow weekend is like in Heaven and if Jesus is the Emcee?