Indians and Indians
by Nic Olson
The Red Indians. That is how I remember friends from India refer to Aboriginal peoples in North America. Please excuse the politically incorrect nature of the title of this essay.
As Cook and Food Recovery Program Coordinator (the more words you have in the title, the more important you are on a global scale) one of the duties is to run a nutrition program. If my roommates are a typical sample selection, I can guarantee that I eat healthier than most single men my age, but in no way does this qualify me to pretend I know more than mothers-of-five or middle-aged men. I stumble through repetitive weekly sessions about budgeting and Canada’s Food Guide for First Nations, Inuit and Metis populations trying not to brainwash them into vegetarianism that could realistically jeopardize their culture. Currently, the program consists of several Aboriginal mothers and fathers and one Punjabi woman with no children.
Daily I feed hundreds of people who lack a regular source of healthy food. I attempt to do this with absolutely no ability or knowledge in serving them food that respects their culture, let alone their dietary preference. I serve westernized semi-processed foods out a back window to people verging on physical malnutrition and cultural assimilation. Carmichael Casserole or Spaghetto and Meatsauce sustains their bodies for a while longer and at times it doesn’t even achieve that. I am overwhelmed with how little I know.
Then I read such articles. Things which are 100% relevant to my current position and I begin to reel. If the government or people are not willing to properly reconcile, then I become immaturely overwhelmed as to how to do so out of a 6′ x 6′ kitchen. Leanne Simpson, Indigenous author, writes:
“I wonder how we can reconcile when the majority of Canadians do not understand the historic or contemporary injustice of dispossession and occupation, particularly when the state has expressed its unwillingness to make any adjustments to the unjust relationship….
It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her, we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to ‘reconcile.’ But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing; he doesn’t want to stop the abuse.”
-Leanne Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back
I cannot host reconciliation out of a kitchen. And this is because, according to the synopsis of Simpson’s book (see the above link), “reconciliation must be grounded in political resurgence and must support the regeneration of Indigenous languages, oral cultures, and traditions of governance.” I cannot catalyze reconciliation because I do not really understand the historic or contemporary injustice of occupation. And that is what gets me. Reconciliation is not done solo out of a grimy kitchen. It is done through processes which may have nothing to do with me and steps which I cannot control, but processes and steps in which I can participate in some way. Processes which I can learn about to potentially approach a climate that is fair for future reconciliation.
The fact that I cannot adequately express my intentions with the word Indian demonstrates my obvious inability to help promote and preserve a culture that is not mine through an ill-prepared nutrition program and sloppy meals. The infinite nature of my naiveté and glaring inability is burning me out. They make me want to run away to the land of the Not-Red Indian in a fit of hedonistic, selfish admission of my lack of knowledge. My lack of commitment. My lack of connection to the issue, which is maybe the worst part—that I could get on a plane and forget about hundreds of years of colonialism and assimilation, because I can.
I am here to stick around for as long as I can before my brain explodes and I find myself crying in some colonially-cultivated blossoming organic flax field, because I do not want to “adjust the ways” we have been abusing, rather I want to stop the abuse. One of the only ways to do this is participation, knowledge, and handing out egg salad sandwiches to two-hundred people a day.
Or at least that’s what I’m going to tell myself so I don’t drown in egg salad.
Coming from a teaching perspective, where I taught a unit in Aboriginal Culture/Storytelling, I felt overwhelmingly inadequate. As you are saying, it is not my culture, and when I went to highschool I had little to no education about First Nations/Metis/Intuit colonization/assimilation/cultural practices. When I taught that unit, I got an overwhelmingly negative response from the white population in my class, that this has “nothing to do with them” and it’s “constantly being shoved down their throats.” Luckily I took a day to prepare my response so the next lesson wasn’t solely yelling but a formulated argument on why it is important to learn about the worldview of the culture who lived here for much longer than immigrants (including European ancestry). As I was working with the Aboriginal Advocate at the school, he told me that everyone feels inadequate; we just have to do it anyway. I feel as though whether you’re working in a kitchen or in a classroom or wherever, you need to do as much as you possibly can to do your part in healing cultures that have been so damaged by the government and by the ill-informed and ridiculously ignorant stereotypes that people hold on to. And honestly, I think where I have done the most good is with the ill-informed people who I am close to who continue to regurgitate negative stereotypes and relish in their white privilege: largely their ability to ignore the fact that they are part of a country who has damaged cultures and continues to damage, ignore, belittle and mistreat — directly and indirectly due to the privilege that we hold to be politically aware or to not be.
The last thing I want to be is that white teacher who is trying to “fix” problems she hasn’t had to live through and doesn’t understand. I do, however, want to be that teacher who works with people who have had to live it and who do understand it to help to educate future generations to stop degrading members of their own race.