Traditional in trying times

Traditional in trying times

This past week, I attended the Decolonizing Conference 2016 at the University of Toronto. While I love spending time in spaces such as this in which decolonization, race and anti-oppression are centered, they often remind me of the gaps in public education systems and the type of assumptions that leads us to all carry.

In the first session of the day that I attended the presenter at one point referred to herself as a “traditional Mohawk woman”. For me, someone familiar with the way many Indigenous folks in Canada will use the term “traditional”, I understood this to mean a woman who continues to practice ceremony and participate in traditional governing structures or community structures in some way. However come discussion period one audience member asked what was meant by this term and when given an answer along the same lines as my understanding as stated above, the audience member followed up with questions including “So is it like a class system then?”, “Does that mean Mohawks who live outside of the community aren’t traditional?” and “Does that mean you’re a better Mohawk?”.

I don’t blame the audience member for the questions that to me were cringe-worthy and distressing. Rather, I blame our education systems. Indigenous folks are often expected to explain our lives to others. We often don’t match the images held in the heads of non-Indigenous folks. This lack of agreement between the images our educations systems have taught folks and the images of real Indigenous folks often brings non-Indigenous people to believe they have a right to question the authenticity of Indigenous peoples.

Non-Indigenous folks have always felt they have a control or say over what a real “Indian” is. I believe this stems from the way non-Indigenous folks have been using Indigenous representations to tell the stories they wanted to about the New World since the arrival of European settlers. These narratives includes the “noble savage” or the disappearing Indian narratives. And today, because accurate and current representations are so rarely present in education and media, when folks are presented with an Indigenous person who does not meet their expectations, they don’t believe it because it is not what they were taught to expect.

This disbelief of the authenticity of Indigenous folks can lead to erasure of the lived experiences of Indigenous folks and beliefs that because Indigenous people have changed with time, just as any group has, that they no longer have a claim to Indigeneity.

However, I want to take the time to remind Indigenous folks that traditional or not, white-passing or not, on-reserve or not, you are an authentic Indigenous person. You existing and claiming your rights and heritage is authentic. You speaking out against colonialism and racism is authentic. You can choose to live your life in different ways and be influenced in different ways by the changing world we live in, but you will always be authentic.

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The world in my hand

The world in my hand

Well, it’s how I thought I’d feel when I graduated from an undergraduate degree at a (objectively) prestigious university. Instead I told a friend “I thought I’d feel much more prepared by now than I do”.

Graduating with a BA in political science can feel like graduating with a degree in writing critiques. Useful? Yes. Clearly applicable to life after academia? Not always. I was often left wondering how I was supposed to turn the ability to write a term paper into a career. I felt like I graduated with no concrete skills.

Thankfully I graduated with an opportunity. Through the Coady International Institue I have been given the opportunity to work on community development right here in Canada. The Coady promotes asset-based community driven development (ABCD development to be cheesy) and is with this mentality I’ll be framing the “development” aspects of my program.

I’ve always been reluctant to be part of international development programs and work for two main and very interconnected reasons:

  1. Most development programs I’ve be aware of have focused on international development. And yet, in Canada and the rest of the Western world we still struggle with many development, social justice and equity issues so why is it we feel we are equipped to then travel to other place to do development work? In Canada for example it’s popular to do voluntourism trips to build wells in other countries or to support NGOs looking to build access to clean water and yet we have First Nation communities living under boil water advisories for decades. Why do we feel qualified to tell other countries how to develop when we can’t develop ourselves?
  2. Why do we feel it’s appropriate to put so much money and time into building the capacities of students and staff from the global North to work on development internationally rather than put those resources to developing leaders within their own communities to lead development? I realize there are people determined to put their privilege to good use to fight for equity and that there are certain skills that don’t currently exist in areas that need them but many programs seem to take it for granted we in the Western world are the right people for the job on development in countries most of us know little about.

The program I’m a part of is in my opinion the development program that most alleviates these concerns for me. By requiring applicants have a reference from the community they would work with they help prevent participants from parachuting themselves into contexts they don’t understand and by allowing development within our own backyard to be looked at with the same priority they help avoid the assumption that the Western world knows best.

However I do still have concerns and qualms about working in and being associated with development work. I suppose we’ll just have to see how this goes.