Indigenous 101: Exploring myths and stereotypes (part two)

February 19, 2019

Indigenous 101: Exploring myths and stereotypes (part two)

Question: Dreamcatchers are an Indigenous piece of art that we see in a lot of places: souvenir shops, hanging from people’s rear view mirrors. What is the real purpose of a dreamcatcher? And are people being foolish or disrespectful if they don’t use it properly?

Thomas: Personally, I don’t like dreamcatchers. I’ve never had a dreamcatcher and I don’t want one. I want to keep my dreams!

Elliott: I’ve never had any teachings about dreamcatchers, so I’m not really sure about their significance and where they came from.

Delores: It’s something sacred. A real dreamcatcher is made with willow, and it’s something that might be placed over a fasting lodge to help someone who is on a fast. It’s believed that with the help of a dreamcatcher, you won’t have negative visitors or negative thoughts during your fast. My grandchildren have dreamcatchers over their beds so they will be protected from bad dreams. And we ask the Creator to bless the dreamcatcher so that they will take care of whoever needs them. So they do have a sacred purpose, and I don’t agree with dreamcatchers being made in China and sold in Banff souvenir shops or whatever. Dreamcatchers should be respected by those who are not First Nations.

Myth: Indigenous people think they can survive in the modern world by hunting and fishing, instead of working “real” jobs.

Elliott: It’s not always that people expect to make a living by hunting and fishing, just that they want to feel free to pursue those things, since it’s part of our culture and heritage. Generally, you see people going for this traditional lifestyle – hunting, fishing, trapping – in the north, in more remote communities. Even close to Edmonton, a lot of hunting goes on. My brother hunts, and whenever he kills a moose or a deer, there’s an expectation that he will share it with the community. He will share a portion with the other hunters that he’s with, some of it will go to Elders in the community, and then he shares it with immediate family.

Delores: I have a brother-in-law who still lives this way. He’s a journeyman with three trades, so he works regularly, but he takes six months off to live and survive off the land with my sister. They hunt, they have a garden, she preserves fruit. But they feel so connected to the land, they eat healthy food, and they honour the way that Indigenous people used to live. He gives up employment for six months so he can be rich in other ways. Once their savings are depleted, it’s easy for him to find work for six months so they can do it again. My husband and I used to be trappers. We ran a trap line and bought our first new vehicle with the money we made from the furs. It would be hard to survive like that in Edmonton!

Elliott: Maybe you could shoot the rabbits that are all over the city.

Delores: (Laughs) Yes, and there’s coyotes where we live!

Thomas: What do you call an Indigenous vegetarian? A bad hunter! (Everyone laughs) I feel pretty proud that my great uncles and my grandfathers taught me how to hunt. I know how to set traps, and call an elk or a moose. These are skills that have been gifted to me, so I find it very rewarding to head out into the woods, kill an animal, and put meat on the table next to the peas and carrots.

Myth: If non-Indigenous people show up at a powwow or other Indigenous gathering, they won’t be welcome.

Thomas: A powwow is a celebration. Everything in our culture is gifted from Mother Earth. And when we’re celebrating those gifts with everyone, why wouldn’t you feel welcome?

Elliott: Powwows and round dances are social gatherings and always open to the public. Lots of non-Indigenous people attend the powwows in my community, Maskwacis. We have relationships with nearby towns and communities, and so people come and participate. I would hesitate, however, when there are pieces that are more ceremonial, such as sweats and sun dances. Those are more by invitation. NorQuest does a great job of providing non-Indigenous people a chance to see dancers and drummers at our college events, but it’s different hearing a single drum and seeing a couple of dancers at the college and being at a powwow and seeing dozens or hundreds of dancers and 10 or 12 drummers. It’s a great experience!

Delores: Powwow brings people together. Everyone connects, everyone feels happy, it’s uplifting, it’s healing. Powwow is awesome!

Question: What’s the difference between a tribe, a nation, and a band? And is it okay to ask an Indigenous person “what tribe are you?”

Elliott: Those terms have been pretty much interchangeable. Some communities will have the word “tribe”, such as Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis. Ermineskin used to be Ermineskin Band, but we’ve changed it to Ermineskin Cree Nation. So those words – tribe, band, nation – are meant to represent the community that you’re from. Funny story: when I was applying to the University of Alberta, I told them that my band would be providing me with funding for school. I got a puzzled look, because they thought I was talking about a musical band! (laughs) And yes, you can certainly ask someone what band or tribe they are from, but allow them to describe their community in their own terms.

Delores: Also, among Indigenous people, it gets more detailed. I am Cree, and there are Plains Cree, Bush Cree, Woodland Cree, and others, but only Cree people would know that.

Myth: Indigenous people are named after the first thing their parents see in nature (eg: David Flying Eagle, Mary Running Deer).

Delores: That’s a myth. My father told me a story that many years ago when we signed treaties, every person had to be documented. We didn’t have western names, and the Indian Agents would assign names: you’re going to be Running Bear, or Thunder Cloud, or Has No Horse. So it was another patronizing thing that Indian Agents and the government did to our people.

Elliott: The government was able to determine family names for people, which is crazy. For instance, my late great Mosom (great grandfather), when he enlisted in the army, there was a miscommunication and part of his last name was cut off. Our family name used to be Youngchief, but they cut it to Young. And we’ve been Young ever since!

In part three of this article, our Indigenous panel will discuss Halloween costumes, treaty cards, the significance of tobacco, and more.

Indigenous 101 is an ongoing series of articles that explore Indigenous culture at our college and beyond. Our Indigenous team will be sharing knowledge as we delve into ideas, concepts, myths, stereotypes, and more.