Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coercive vs. voluntary assimilation?

I am a regular follower of other Aboriginal blogs. One is by a Mohawk blogger (and former or current journalist Shmohawk). He prefers anonymity, so I will not begrudge him that. His site can be accessed here: http://shmohawk.wordpress.com
Anyway, on a recent post, he reminisced about a past offer of employment at Indian Affairs. Given the British Crown's history with FN peoples and that of the Canadian state in certain respects, I understand his reluctance about this job offer.
He doesn't want to become part of the system that he perceives to be the problem. Hey, I support that sentiment.
Where I find his argument puzzling, and that of so many others, is the whole issue of assimilation. Indian Affairs seems to be fingered as the main culprit for assimilation. The post then goes on to look at the White Paper and various forced attempts at "assimilation."
Here is where I strongly differ. If funding for First Nation programs eventually ceased, would that mean assimilation for First Nations? I mean seriously, is cultural preservation tied to funding programs? Are we just a few program dollars or programs away from a fully-restored ingenous identity?
I submit we are not. I submit cultural and identity preservation is a matter of family and community will, with some government help, but not in the form some Native activists want.
I attended a symposium years ago in Winnipeg on indigenous languages. It was very interesting and revealed the sad reality that many indigenous languages were threatened with extinction. Ojibway and Cree were two of the strongest languages, but many others were losing speakers all the time.
At the symposium, funding and government recognition seemed to be the favourite approach. I disagree with the first, but could support the second.
Quebec is a good model for understanding language retention. However, I am sure I will lose readers for all sorts of different reasons, but bear with me.
For language to survive, it must become a lived reality. It must be public. There is nothing preventing First Nations (and many do) from trying to use their state powers to post signage in their language or ensure minutes are available in indigenous languages.
Here is where I will lose some. I support government, even constitutional, support for indigenous languages. To me, this makes perfect sense. Why should be pretend there are only Two Founding Nations anymore? I am French-Canadian, but I think it makes sense to preserve these languages even sometimes more than my own. The reality is you can't say to an indigenous person, "go back to where you come from if you want to preserve your language." Even if you accept the scientifically-based Land Bridge Theory, this still places indigenous people here well before everyone else.
Before I continue, I say this does not necessarily funding for language programs. I oppose those largely even for my own language group. This means public documents would be recognized as official if they are written in some Native dialects.
Ok, but there are hundreds of indigenous dialects and languages, you may scream. But, this is why indigenous languages cannot be treated like English or French. This is a largely moral and symbolic change and would mean any indigenous person could speak in his or her original language in Parliament.
Anyways, this means language preservation will fall on the indigenous governments and communities. Obviously, English and French needs to be put first in education curricula, given the needs of our country, but a public face to these languages could be achieved, all within the legitimate jurisdiction of FN governments.
The other reality is that language loss will change because of many non-coercive changes. Natives are marrying and raising kids with non-Natives. This is a voluntary move. How they retain language is not a legitimate area of the state.
Some language loss will be inevitable as First Nations access modern Canadian life. Jobs, education ae chiefly done in English or French. The main job must be at home or within a community. Even studies show that urbanization does not mean one loses one languge, it just becomes a secondary language.
I have seen whole First Nation community meetings conducted completely in Cree. This is a matter of passing on the tongue and ensuring it is respected.
Spirtuality and other cultural values are also tough issues. Obviously, coerced attempts to deny indigenous people their spirituality are wrong, such as the residential schools system approach in many instances.
The question becomes once the coercive policies are lifted, where does responsibility lie? I submit it lies with individual and community. The challenge is that in modernity, it is not possible or moral to impose a public indigenous religious order, any more than forcing mass on a whole community. There is not unanimity among FNs about religion and even if there was, it is not moral to force rituals or beliefs. FNs in large numbers have decided to return to the old traditional ways. That is their choice. No one ought to prevent that. First Nation voluntary associations should play the role of promoting spiritual values, just like churches. The problem is the horribl historic example of churches in these matters. Through coercion and abuse of position, these bodies have given Christianity a very bad reputation on many reserves. Many are completely turned off from the organized churches. I don't blame them. The question, however, is not that that pressure is gone, where is the role of individuals now?
Indigenous traditionalists need to realize that many First Nations have opted for a different way, either Christianity, atheism (I am meeting many atheist FNs these days), or whatever. This may mean that the definition of what is means to be "Indian" needs change. They need a more secular, inclusive definition.
Anyways, the only problem then is political, values orientation. Some would say that assimilation could result from changing what makes indigenous people indigenous. Well, this comes back to what makes indigenous. At its root, it is an ethnic category or a matter of descent. A lot of what we package into what we mean by indigenous or Indian is subjective and debatable. It would be hard to say it is a way of life or mode of existence, given that FNs today live in totally different conditions. Hunting, fishing and trapping are not all shared by all indigenous peoples. The most contested definition is communal ownership of land. Many argue the Creator puts indigenous peoples on their lands, so that has to stay. However, looking back to the discussion on spirituality, it is not clear this is share by all FNs. Many reserves look towards private property as a good. Moreover, some FNs (like Nisga'a) have gone the whole distance in allowing land to be alienated from the community (although still subject to indigenous law). No one an argue these people are no indigenous.
So, given the complexity of even understanding what is "indigenous," how can we say definitively what assimilation is when we do not know from what proper image people are assimilating from? I submit there is no true copy of Indian out there, or proper representation. I think it was either Plato or Aristotle who referred to the image of some object that exists in pure form in our minds. Someone correct me on that if I'm wrong.
So, I live with this thought: the only people who can assimilate First Nations are First Nations themselves. If they fail to exercise individual, family and community will. If they fail to use the jurisdiction over language and culture they already have to their advantage. If THEY fail, "assimilation," whatever that means, is a virtual certainty.