I don’t know if there’s a word in any Native language for ‘insidious’ but there should be. Heading into a new century and a new millennium there are a host of words our nations term vital – sovereignty, self-government, integration to name a few – but none are so crucial to our common future as the word ‘insidious.’
In its simplest form it means sneaky. Cunning is perhaps a better translation because when I refer to insidious, I refer to our greatest common enemy – alcohol. When our people raise a glass of cheer this New Year’s Eve, my hope is that those glasses hold no furtive poisons, no liquid lie. Because I have seen enough, lived and lost enough to the trickster alcohol to recognize the hidden threat it poses to Native individuals, families, communities, nations, hopes and aspirations.
Sobriety should never be a consequence of alcohol. It should and must be, a self-governing choice we make based on our knowledge of the past and our hope for the future. I have never found it easy to make that choice and I have paid the price in the loss of valuable resources. Things like families, friends, employment, trust and freedom.
But I am not a soapbox preacher. Neither am I a recovered militant or born-again traditionalist espousing a mass return to the sweat lodge. I’m just a Native drunk tired of losses, new starts, broken promises, unfulfilled dreams and a new century that holds change if I’m willing to work towards it. In that, drunks or not, Native people everywhere share my story.
We’ve had five centuries of all that we’re being dealt a fresh hand of time to work for change. No matter what the political agenda, no matter what the tribal dream, organizational plan or community initiative, the spirit that drives those mechanisms needs to come from sober people. We need and should demand sober leadership – at the negotiating table, the board room table and the kitchen table.
We speak so eloquently of working today for the benefit of seven future generations. We ballyoo the spirituality that enabled us to survive such drastic change. We chest thump and back slap over all that we’ve achieved despite those dire circumstances. And we pressure governments and our mainstream neighbours to recognize, affirm, define, entrench and accept as feet, rights and powers we never surrendered.
All of which is fine. As nations of people we deserve recognition for all we have accomplished. As sovereign entities we’re entitled to the benefits of our struggles. As political groups we’ve earned the right to crow a little bit over the broad measure of our survival. But not at the expense of truth.
And the truth is this: there’s an enemy in our camps. For every political gain, every sociologie step forward, every ethical, spiritual, traditional move upwards, there’s an accompanying loss. The enemy lurks to ensure that.
Every child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome negates our claim to be self-governing. Every abused spouse, broken home, adopted child and over-burdened social service outlet lays waste our claim to a vaunted spirituality. Every teen street gang, incarcerated man or woman, suicide, prostitute, pimp or homeless Native person illegitimatizes the high tradition we claim provides the impetus for our politics. All of these blights begin and end in alcohol.
There’s no one to blame but there are a million or so of us to take responsibility, to fix it from within, and that is the hallmark of a nation and a people. That’s self-governance, sovereignty, tradition and spirituality. Granted, the solutions don’t come easy. I know that from experience, just as I know that it’s the willingness to struggle towards the ideal that elevates us as individuals, communities and societies.
When we negotiate for our political rights we need to tell Canadians why. Not in the legalese and rhetoric we’ve learned from 30 years of political identity and wrangling but in the language of the heart. The enemy has taught each one of us. Simply put it’s this: we want political empowerment so we don’t have to watch our people die and no one can heal them but ourselves.
When we can tell them that we’re speaking heart to heart. When blame is not part of the equation we cultivate understanding and we become responsible enough to admit our failings along with our successes; we prove ourselves capable of self-government and create allies.
We’re all going to need each other in this new century. Our Canada is threatened from within and only we can heal it. Working towards removing the enemy rather than allowing it to remove us one by one allows us to become a part of the solution. We’ve been the “Indian problem” long enough.
Happy New Year. Happy New Millennium.