As an outsider looking inward into the Cree communities, there would seem to be more assimilation that has taken place over the last 400-500 years of colonization than is readily apparent to the people themselves.
I say this as a person belonging to an ethnic minority in Canada for whom culture and tradition is extremely important. As a matter of fact I celebrate my cultural heritage on a daily basis in spite of the fact that I am thousands of miles away from my home.
In the mornings I do not wake up to Celine Dion or Britney Spears, but rather to the soynds which have been instilled in my soul over the last 50 years. They are mostly sounds which have emanated from my ancestors and from the African drum. It serves to reassure me of who I am and where I have come from and to counteract the effects of colonization.
My drum is also an integral part of my household furniture where, at anytime, I could tap out familiar rhythms and feel the heart beat of my people that it represents. And in spite of the fact that I now live in northern Quebec, my refrigerator is filled with root vegetables, spices, and other foods that have travelled over the oceans in challenging situations. That is because the food does not only feed my physical body but it also feeds my spirit.
And the list could go on and on with the pilgrimages to my home country and to cultural events across Canada and the United States in celebration of my culture. As with my particular vernacular which makes people wonder how is it that I have been away from my home for so long and I am still able to maintain my distinctive accent.
Having lived in the Cree communities for the last couple of years I seem to find a significant discrepancy between what I hear and what I see as it relates to culture and traditions.
I often hear about traditional methods of healing and medicines and yet what I see when I have visited elders in their homes are dosettes filled with pills and more pills for one ailment or the other. It makes you wonder what is it that they did for the previous 4,500 years prior to contact.
I often hear of traditional foods of moose, goose, caribou, beaver, and rabbit. But outside of the occasional feast, what I see is poutine, pizza, club sandwiches, and fries as the big sellers at the community restaurants. And any visit to the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Chibougamou could convince an outsider that this business would have to close its doors if it were not for the surrounding Cree communities. I cannot help but cringe as I observe elders at the KFC with food in front of them that looks so foreign.
In a recent article in the Nation, Cree grandmother Dorothy Poison lamented the fact that her grandchildren are more used to fast food. She went on to explain that she often has to camouflage the wild meat that she prepares for her grandchildren to trick them into eating beaver, moose, bear and rabbit.
Like the diseases that were introduced to Native people at the point of contact with white people, these non-traditional foods are no doubt responsible for the significant increases in illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems among the Cree population. Not to mention when this is combined with the lack of an active traditional lifestyle, which is now replaced by vehicles to drive around the community, a sofa, a remote control and a satellite dish.
In the communities I also hear of traditional spirituality and the medicine wheel but what I often see is what seems like the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism and the scant dismissal of other ways of seeing life and reality as “Indian religion.” In some cases any hint of traditional drum and dance is interpreted as paganistic. I happen to believe that there is no single way to make sense of our lives on this earth and each person is entitled to his or her own set of beliefs.
One also has to wonder about the next generation in their FUBUs, Nikes, GAPs, and Hilfigers and whether they are ready to assume stewardship of the land and the traditional way of life. Or whether they would become like people in the south who retreat to their cottages in the bush only on weekends and holidays.
Additionally, I wonder about the number of young people who are able to prepare traditional foods and perform other cultural activities such as beaver skinning, tanning, and moccasin making.
My list could go on and on as it relates to sensitivity towards the environment versus the way in which people discard pop cans, bottles, and paper in the community and the fact that I have yet to hear any authentic Cree music as opposed to hymns and other songs that have been translated into Cree.
I sincerely hope that my outsider’s perception of the situation is wrong. Because if it is not, then there is a whole future that is at stake and there is a lot of work yet to be done to make sure that complete assimilation does not become a reality. It is our traditions, beliefs, and cultural values that give each of us our unique identity as a people.
In the meanwhile, if you see a non-native guy in the Cree communities eating food that is different from the Canadian norm and listening to music with a different beat just remember that I am only celebrating my cultural identity.