Life beyond labels: Indians? Aboriginals? First Nations?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 17, 2014

Readers have been asking me lately what I call someone of Aboriginal identity.

My usual answer? I call them Roland, Tina, Thomas, Henry, or whatever their name is.

But of course, the question is really about appropriate ways of referring collectively to folks who trace their roots back to their pre-European heritage in this land. That question has special relevance for the media, and for us here in Cochrane, in particular.

After all, a very large part of this newspaper’s readership is from Morley, home of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.

Informed by more than my share of blunders, I certainly do have my own opinions on this emotionally charged topic. (See my Aug. 13, 2008 column, “What do they think we are? Your trained bears?”) Thanks to nearly 50 years of respect-based mentorship under elders of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, however, I think I’m starting to catch on to life beyond labels.

Typical ways the media identify people these days include name, fame/position, ethnicity, nationality, language, physical characteristics and residence – but if the media are acting responsibly, they only use those identifiers that are appropriate for the story.

Sadly, however, there’s still too much inappropriate labelling of Canada’s first peoples, as columnist Mary Agnes Welch notes in an article brought to my attention by longtime coffee companion David Forbes.

In “When words fail us” (Winnipeg Free Press, July 6), Welch dismisses such words as “Indian” as racist “relics based on a geographic delusion.” “Native” and “aboriginal” – especially when pluralized as in the derogatory labels “natives” and “aboriginals” – share a similar fate, although “aboriginal peoples” is acceptable in some contexts, she notes.

The media have too often taken the easy way out by over-generalizing, she says. We should use more specific terms of national, linguistic or locational identity.

I totally agree with Welch, based on my own experience with elders and artists of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.

Thus, I’ve learned to say “Morley artist Roland Rollinmud,” or more often, “Stoney Nakoda artist …,” instead of “Aboriginal artist …,” because Roland’s specific national/cultural heritage is absolutely relevant to his work.

Likewise, I’ve learned to speak of “Stoney Elder Tina Fox,” because her wisdom is anchored in her rich Stoney cultural heritage and expressed through her eloquence in the Stoney dialect of the Sioux language. By the way, her preference for self-identity is simply Îyethkabi, “Stoney,” her community’s traditional word for its members. She sees the word “Nakoda” more as a politically motivated label.

Thomas Snow, a University of Calgary graduate from Morley, wrote at length about his own educational journey in a recent issue of the Eagle. He identifies himself proudly as a member of the Stoney Nakoda Nation. He likes the word “Nakoda” (plural: “Nakodabi”), because of its positive connotation of warrior-spirit determination in the face of struggle.

“This warrior spirit is within us and runs through our veins and into our hearts. It cannot be beaten out of us,” he says. “We are Nakodabi and we will rise.”

At this point I’d like to comment on a pet peeve of mine. It has to do with the following expression often encountered in local media: “on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation,” as in “so-and-so lives on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.”

In my thinking, nations are people, not locations. “First Nation” is not a euphemism for the distasteful word, “reserve.” People may live on a ranch, on an acreage, and yes, on a reserve, but not on a First Nation. They are members of a First Nation. “Stoney Nakoda First Nation” is the name of a people with a distinctive history, culture and language; it’s not a location.

Let me close with reference to something former Chiniki First Nation Chief Henry Holloway, of Morley, said on the matter of identity one beautiful summer morning in 1995. (I’ve shared this story previously, but it bears repeating.)

Henry had been invited to mount the platform at CARE, the Cochrane Aboriginal Recognition Event, being held at Cochrane Ranche Historic Site. He had no prepared speech, but spoke off the cuff with a down-home-on-the-ranch manner of someone who loves horses, cattle, the open range, and most of all, people.

Looking around at the folks sitting together on the lawn in front of him, he began reminiscing about how the old-timers used to sit together on the bench outside the saddle shop along Cochrane’s main drag.

On that bench at any one time there’d be ranchers from the Jumping Pound area and from north and west of Cochrane. And yes, some were from Morley, too. They’d be comparing ropes, veterinary concerns, the latest news on livestock auctions, and so forth.

“But they weren’t sitting there as wasijubi – ‘White People’ – at one end of the bench, and as Îyethkabi – ‘Stoneys” – at the other end,” he said. “They were together on that bench just as wîchastabi – just as ‘human beings’ who were enjoying each other for what they shared in common.”

Ah yes, the only identity that truly matters: our common humanity – a lesson in life beyond labels.


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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