If ‘Canada’s’ First Nations want to exercise their traditional hunting or fishing rights, they should do so in the way that they did them at the time of first contact. If First Nations people want to be separate and live on reserves and live a traditional life, they should go back to living in teepees and give up their xboxes and flatscreen TVs. There’s no such thing as a first “nation”, there weren’t any countries here when Europeans arrived … these people had no sense of property or place etc… etc…
It’s not just the ‘right wing authoritarian’ personality types that hold those stupid and backward views. Even moderate non-native people, the ‘good ones’, the ones you’d think were civilized sometimes hold the views listed above.
I think the view boils down to this idea of native people as frozen in time. It’s this idea that native-ness is tied to living a 400 or 500-year old life. And that’s not an uncommon view. Throughout Latin America that understanding is how people differentiate ‘indians’ from ‘mestizos’ – though both groups would be considered native by Canada’s interpretation.
There is a liberal version of this argument that’s used a lot when talking about the 2nd amendment in the United States. That is that when the second amendment was written firearms meant muskets, not AR15s that can fire 60 bullets a minute. And … so … when aboriginal rights were recognized it didn’t mean hunting with rifles or opening modern skyscraper casinos – it meant living in igloos and hunting with spears.
To get at these arguments you need to split them in two. On the one side are rights, and on the other is identity.
Start first with identity – if you want to be an ‘Indian’ you need to be archaic, frozen in time half a millennia ago. This view doesn’t come from many natives. This comes from outside, from non-natives telling natives whether they believe their identity is valid or not. But that’s not what identity is. It doesn’t start from outsiders telling you what you are, it comes from you and your community living and agreeing on what you are.
We don’t base Canadian identity on what someone from China comes in and says about it – and we don’t base native identity on what a non-native believes it is. Native identity is what native people believe it is. And that is necessarily as fluid as any other identity in the world.
Go back a hundred years ago, use Google NGram, and look up the word ‘Canadian’. Canadian meant one thing only – a French-speaking Quebecker. English-speaking Canadians saw themselves as different, as British, upright, tea-drinking, god-fearing. When this country was founded, a nascent Canadian identity was created, one that developed again mid 20th century when Canadian citizenship was introduced. But is the idea of Canadian-ness cast in stone and frozen in time in 1867, or in the 1960′s at its inception or codification? Or is it something that’s allowed to grow and develop? Canada used to pride itself on being a deeply conservative and religious country. Now it’s the opposite – can people from outside point at Canada and say that these aren’t Canadians, and thus this country isn’t legitimate? It’s a stupid argument.
And when directed at First Nations peoples, that argument is just as stupid.
As Canadians have changed over the centuries, so have First Nations people. By changing, Canada doesn’t lose its right to exist, doesn’t lose it’s legitimacy as a separate nation. And neither do first nations people. Canada isn’t forced into choosing between being frozen in time, or becoming America; and natives shouldn’t be forced to choose between being frozen in time and becoming Canadian. There is a third option. For Canadians and for First Nations people, that third option is to progress.
And I think at the heart of it, that word ‘progress’ exposes the racist kernel at the core of what non-natives mean when they cast natives who don’t fit their stereotype as fakes. In the eyes of non-natives (and sadly, some natives), to be First Nations is to be prehistoric, and to be modern is to be Canadian (by which they usually mean ‘white’).
But it’s simply wrong. To be a First Nations person in Canada today is to be a person like any other, with an identity like any other, one that is changed or refreshed or renewed with each generation. Modern native identity has evolved to include science and technology that would seem like magic to a white Canadian of the 1867 vintage. To be a native of the 21st century and still live and act like it’s 1400 is illegitimate and disrespectful to everything that our ancestors have suffered through for the last 500 years.
Native culture and identity are what natives make it. Foreigners don’t dictate what it is.
Now some people might say that it has changed so much and become so similar to Canadian culture that there’s effectively no difference. I would argue that the differences between native culture and white Canadian culture are far greater than the differences between Canadian culture and Australian culture – and clearly those two are separate things.
I know that for Salish people there is a different concept of what a family is. There is a different idea of faith, of propriety. There are different death rights, and different celebrations that people look forward to. There are different types of people we respect, and different ways of honouring them. There’s a different system of government and most importantly there’s a different idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Besides the xboxes, plasma TVs iPhones and kraft dinner we all share – Canadians and Australians share a god, a system of government, have common ideas of family, propriety, law and order, and seem to differ only on how to spend Christmas day, and what does and does not belong on a ‘barbie’.
As much as native people may have changed in the last 5 centuries (and like Canadian, Japanese, Thai, Czech, and Hottentot freely use Chinese manufactured goods and wear Vietnamese made clothes) they have not yet changed to the extent that native identity and Canadian identity are indistinguishable. And if they are not indistinguishable they are different, and to be different, even if that means different from how they were 25 generations ago, doesn’t affect their legitimacy one way or another.
While none of these things may have existed in 1867, a white Canadian hockey fan with socialized medicine, a box of timbits, and a Justin Beiber ringtone on his Blackberry is just as Canadian as Sir John A Macdonald. And as long as that’s how he or she identifies themselves, an ‘Indian’ with an xbox and a degree in law is as just much an ‘Indian’ as Sitting Bull or Hiawatha.
As for the second point, about ‘traditional’ rights and bows and arrows, that’ll come later.