by Daniel Crowfeather
In today’s mainstream society, there is a growing interest in Aboriginal culture and spirituality, and in a return to simpler ways and times. However, as people begin to search out information about these cultures, many have a tendency to take any facts they learn and apply them to all Aboriginal cultures, as though there was only one universal Aboriginal culture across all of North America and Meso-America.
In truth, there was and is a rich variety of Aboriginal cultures. From the peoples of the Northwest coast with their distinctive art and dependence on the sea, to the Plains peoples and their tipis, to the Innu people and their kayaks and igloos, each Nation developed in a way that suited their location and resources. In addition, each Nation received from the spirit world those ceremonies and traditions that they needed in order to live their lives in the best possible way for them. While there are many common threads that connect these cultures and traditions, there are many small nuances that make them special and unique to each people.
As an example, consider the simple Medicine Wheel. Here is a symbol that is found in the traditions of many First Nations, and which has come to be a generally-recognized symbol of Native cultures. The concept is simple: a circle divided into four quadrants, each with one of the four colours of man: Red, White, Black and Yellow. However, there are nuances: in the Mi’kmaw culture, whose traditions I follow, the colours are placed as follows: White to the East, Yellow to the South, Red to the West, and Black to the North. Other Nations, however, place them in a different order; still others add Blue and Green for the sky and earth; and some nations do not have the Medicine Wheel symbol at all. In each case, the tradition (or lack of it) is appropriate for that Nation, and is not considered incorrect by any other Nation. In my experience, each culture honours the differences of the others, and enjoy comparing beliefs as a way to understand and appreciate each other more deeply.
In a way, it is surprising that we can be so quick to paint everyone with the same brush. Consider Europe: it occupies a much smaller area than North America, yet we know that it is full of vibrant and distinct cultures. We do not expect people from France to be the same as people from Norway or Germany or Greece; we know that they have their own cultures and traditions. By the same token, we should not expect the Sioux to be the same as the Cree, or the Nootka to be the same as the Hopi; each is its own culture, with its own traditions and practices.
The main problem, of course, is that much of mainstream society bases their understanding of native cultures on movies and television. We must remember that most of this material is intended purely for entertainment, and usually very little effort is devoted to ensuring that the culture is being portrayed accurately. As I have said on many occasions: any resemblance between the Hollywood First Nation and real life is purely coincidental!
Unfortunately, this problem even extends into many of our First Nations. Here in Canada, many Nations lost much of their traditional knowledge thanks to the infamous government boarding schools. Now, as these Nations try to reclaim their heritage, many are adopting ceremonies and practices that rightfully belong elsewhere. This can lead to further loss of their own culture, and to a great deal of confusion caused by potentially conflicting beliefs.
As an example, there is a growing circle of Mi’kmaw people who have adopted the Sundance from the plains Nations. The Sundance was originally intended to honour the buffalo, which we have never had here in the Maritimes. Because the Sundance tradition is not strongly rooted in the Mi’kmaw culture, it is also being changed by the adoption: I have heard a Mi’kmaw Sundancer claim that nobody can become a Medicine Person for the Mi’kmaq unless they have completed a full commitment to the Sundance. Apparently the Mi’kmaq have been doing it wrong for over ten thousand years. However, in the Plains culture there is no such belief attached to the Sundance. In this case, the adoption of someone else’s tradition has created confusion and, worse yet, has created rifts between different segments of a Nation.
Thus, we must always remember that each First Nation had its own unique culture, and we should not assume that any other Nation had the same beliefs, traditions or practices. The desire to learn is wonderful, but we must treat each facet of each culture as belonging to that culture alone, unless we know for certain that it applies elsewhere. We must learn to deliberately look for and celebrate our differences, so that we learn to appreciate the uniqueness of our own cultures, and those of others. If we can all do that, we will never again hear someone say, “That’s the way the Indians do it.”
All my relations!
If you would like to learn more about the Mi’kmaw culture, please visit Mi’kmaq Spirit
Copyright 2005 Daniel Crowfeather
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To Native Americans known as the Coast Salish, the hair of the dog isn’t a dubious hangover cure—it’s a key ingredient in the large, beautiful blankets woven by their ancestors more than a century ago. A molecular analysis of some of these venerable textiles now confirms they are made partly of yarn spun from the fur of an unusual canine, verifying oral accounts handed down through the Pacific Northwest tribe over generations.
The Coast Salish live in northern Washington and southern British Columbia, and according to tribal lore, their ancestors raised a strange breed of canine. The Salish woolly dog was bred, the story goes, specifically for its fleecy undercoat and long outer hairs, which were woven into the famous Salish blankets. Salish oral tradition about the canine is corroborated by historical accounts, such as the journal of 18th century explorer George Vancouver, who wrote that the Salish dogs had coats that were “a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine, long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.”
Recent research shows the woolly dog probably resembled a current breed called the Spitz, a thick-coated, curly-tailed dog native to Finland. By 1900, however, the Salish woolly dog had vanished. Today the only known physical evidence of it is a single pelt—rediscovered in 2004 in a drawer at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.—of a woolly dog named “Mutton,” the pet of a 19th century ethnographer who studied the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
Despite the tribal lore and other ample evidence, some have dismissed the claim that Salish blankets contain canine hair as just a shaggy-dog story. A survey of more than 100 items woven by the Salish found no dog hair, according to a seminal 1980 book on Salish textiles. And a 2006 DNA analysis that analyzed a small sample of textiles was inconclusive.
The new work, published in the December issue of Antiquity, sheds light on why past studies could have missed dog hair. Using mass spectrometry, a molecular technique for revealing the components of complex mixtures, biochemist Caroline Solazzo of the University of York in the United Kingdom and colleagues analyzed nine blankets woven in the 19th or early 20th centuries by the Coast Salish. They found protein fragments, or peptides, matching peptides from the hair of sheep and mountain goats, as expected. But some of the peptides in five of the nine blankets matched ones from the pelt of Mutton, indicating that the blanket peptides comes from dog hair. Only the older blankets—those woven in the first half of the 19th century—contained dog yarn, and none of them was pure dog. (The earlier DNA analysis had looked at only more recent blankets, which the new analysis showed did not have dog hair.) In most cases, the weavers had combined dog fiber with the highly prized fiber from mountain goats to make a mixed yarn.
Canine hair was easier to come by than mountain goat hair, which could be obtained only by trading with nearby tribes with access to goats, the researchers say. “Dog hair was probably used for less important blankets, blankets with less value, and for common usage, [not] ceremonial usage,” Solazzo says. She and her colleagues found, for example, two very plain ceremonial blankets that contained only goat hair. The weaver might have avoided dog hair because the blankets’ stark design shows off all their fibers rather than concealing some of them.
Klaus Hollemeyer, a researcher at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, who developed the mass spectrometry technique used by Solazzo’s team, believes the new work is definitive. The protein analysis is “well done and documented,” he writes via e-mail.
The new study also helps erase doubts about the accuracy of the Salish oral tradition, says textile conservator Susan Heald of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, and a co-author of the new study. “It’s been close to 10 years since Coast Salish community curator Marilyn Jones asked me if I could find out if dog hair was used in any of the Coast Salish blankets” displayed in a particular museum exhibit, Heald writes via e-mail. “I’m pleased that we can finally tell Marilyn that we did find dog hair in the older blankets, corroborating the oral history.”
Indians Have No True Title to the Land
Such a man, though both honest and intelligent, when he hears that me whites have settled on Indian lands, cannot realize that the act has no resemblance whatever to the forcible occupation of land already cultivated. The white settler has merely moved into an uninhabited waste; he does not feel that he is committing a wrong, for he knows perfectly well that the land is really owned by no one. It is never even visited, except perhaps for a week or two every year, and then the visitors are likely at any moment to be driven off by a rival hunting-party of greater strength. The settler ousts no one from the land; if he did not chop down the trees, hew out the logs for a building, and clear the ground for tillage, no one else would do so. He drives out the game, however, and of course the Indians who live thereon sink their mutual animosities and turn against the intruder. The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil; they had not half as good a claim to it, for instance, as the cattlemen now have to all eastern Montana, yet no one would assert that the cattlemen have a right to keep immigrants off their vast unfenced ranges. The settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages. Moreover, to the most oppressed Indian nations the whites often acted as a protection, or, at least, they deferred instead of hastening their fate. But for the interposition of the whites it is probable that the Iroquois would have exterminated every Algonquin tribe before the end of the eighteenth century; exactly as in recent time the Crows and Pawnees would have been destroyed by the Sioux, had it not been for the wars we have waged against the latter.
Again, the loose governmental system of the Indians made it as difficult to secure a permanent peace with them as it was to negotiate the purchase of the lands. The sachem, or hereditary peace chief, and the elective war chief, who wielded only the influence that he could secure by his personal prowess and his tact, were equally unable to control all of their tribesmen, and were powerless with their confederated nations. If peace was made with the Shawnees, the war was continued by the Miamis; if peace was made with the latter, nevertheless perhaps one small band was dissatisfied, and continued the contest on its own account; and even if all the recognized bands were dealt with, the parties of renegades or outlaws had to be considered; and in the last resort the full recognition accorded by the Indians to the right of private warfare, made it possible for any individual warrior who possessed any influence to go on raiding and murdering unchecked. Every tribe, every sub-tribe, every band of a dozen souls ruled over by a petty chief, almost every individual warrior of the least importance, had to be met and pacified. Even if peace were declared, the Indians could not exist long without breaking it. There was to them no temptation to trespass on the white man’s ground for the purpose of settling; but every young brave was brought up to regard scalps taken and horses stolen, in war or peace, as the highest proofs and tokens of skill and courage, the sure means of attaining glory and hone the admiration of men and the love of women. Where the young men thought thus, and the chiefs had so little real control, it was inevitable that there would be many unprovoked forays for scalps, slaves, and horses made upon the white borderers.
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