From September 24-28 McGill University held its 2nd Annual Aboriginal Awareness Week. Events were held on campus to promote awareness of Aboriginal culture and foster cross-cultural dialogue. The events were varied and many, ranging from dream-catcher making workshops to film screenings to guest speakers.
Among the guest speakers were renowned Native stand-up comedian Ryan McMahon and Dr. Pamela Palmater, lawyer and professor.
McMahon is an Ojibway comedian who is currently travelling across Canada on his UnReserved Tour. At the behest of the McGill Indigenous Student Association, he took time off from his tour to speak about his life and work.
McMahon was born in northwestern Ontario to two residential-school survivors. His early life was “a cycle of dysfunction” because he wasn’t grounded in any cultural identity. McMahon summed up this crisis stating, “I knew I was Native, but I didn’t know what that meant.”
The rest of McMahon’s life was a struggle to define himself as Ojibway in a culture that was outright hostile or patronizing to those of Native descent.
After his graduation from the University of Minnesota with a degree in theatre, McMahon attempted to find a job in the entertainment industry. Although work was plentiful, his cultural identity came into conflict with entrenched racism.
McMahon was told that he did not sound Native enough when he auditioned for a radioplay. He eventually reevaluated his career after quitting a musical production of Dances with Wolves over its simple-minded portrayal of Aboriginal culture. Having had enough with the established entertainment industry, McMahon decided to find his voice as a stand-up comic.
When asked why he chose stand-up, McMahon dead-panned, “Stand-up is one of the least-respected art forms and it is said that Aboriginal people are one of the least-respected people. I guess it just made sense.”
McMahon’s stand-up is filled with observations about how Native culture and mainstream culture both come together and clash. Although he did not perform any stand-up at McGill, you can find some of his routines on YouTube, as was the following: “We love Walmart. Indian country just loves it. If they’d install smudge bowls in the aisles we’d move in. Some sacred CD shopping right there.”
McMahon has flirted with mainstream success many times since he picked up his mic. He has auditioned for Saturday Night Live and performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. However, McMahon has never altered his act to cater to the mainstream and continues to independently book his tours.
For McMahon, his stand-up comedy is not just about getting laughs, it is about cementing and decolonizing his cultural identity. “Decolonialism is not just theory, it’s an active lived thing,” said McMahon.
Currently McMahon has his own podcast, Red Man Laughing, and has taped a one-hour stand-up special for the CBC. To find out more about McMahon, follow his frequently hilarious and always thoughtful Twitter account (@rmcomedy) or check out his website (www.ryanmcmahoncomedy.com).
Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaq lawyer, author and an Associate Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has also done extensive advocacy for Aboriginal groups on both the federal and provincial level.
Her most recent book is titled Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. She came to McGill to speak about some of the ideas in her book.
In front of an audience of students, professors and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, she spoke about the complications of being designated “Indian” by the Canadian government.
Palmater gave examples of how the conception of being “Native” has warped over time.
Before colonization, Native identity was determined by involvement in a community. In some tribes this liberal understanding of community extended even to prisoners of war. There were no criteria such blood percentages to determine membership.
Palmater also stressed the fact that there were no material benefits attached to band membership.
Many Canadians understand Native identity solely in terms of material benefits and blood percentages. Palmater pointed to Justin Beiber’s infamous comments linking band membership to free gas as representative of the ignorance of the Canadian populace at large.
This shift from an identity grounded in culture to an identity grounded in material benefits and blood percentages occurred when the Canadian government enacted the Indian Act in 1876. This began to define being “Indian” in terms of arbitrary measures.
Palmater also highlighted the sexist nature of being designated “Indian” by the government. The Canadian government used to define status Indians as only those whose grandfathers were Indian. This was meant to deny Native women of any rights or benefits.
Due to the fact that her grandmother married a non-Native, Palmater was only recently granted status as an “official” Indian.
Palmater pointed out that Native communities have internalized these arbitrary regulations and spoke about the need to “decolonize our indigenous identities.”
To do this Palmater offered some suggestions to reevaluate band membership criteria. She urged for bands to rethinking about relying solely on blood percentages while maintaining protecting indigenous identity.
Criteria should take into account involvement within a community, language spoken and should allow a band to flourish for several generations.
Palmater finished her lecture with a question-and-answer session.
When asked what her ultimate goal for Aboriginal communities, Palmater said, “restitution instead of reconciliation.”
Palmater is still working to fight the wrongs of the past and make a better tomorrow for Native communities.