September 16, 2009

Whites show Indians the way?

Trying to understand the “help” phenomenon in Native communities

By Jessica YeeI’m trying to understand the phenomenon that has many non-Native people purposely going North, or going South, essentially going out of their way in general, it appears, to go and live in a Native community to “help” or to “help while working.” That is to say, there seems to be a shift in going to live in an Aboriginal territory, do your thing, and then leave. To clarify, I’m not talking about the cultural exchanges or instances where communities themselves are inviting people to contribute. This is where non-Aboriginal folks are seeking out positions or trying to create stuff that is far away from them, in the hopes of either “helping us” or “learning,” by trying to “show us the way” (and yes this kind of sounds all too familiar to the early days of colonization).

Case in point. I’m listening to CBC radio a few weeks back and there are two stories that really got me thinking about this whole phenomenon now. The first was called “Polar Prom,” about a high school in Igloolik, Nunavut that had their first prom this past summer to reward students for staying in school--headed up by three teachers from the South. It all sounds great, until they get to the part about how they are trying to tell kids to “stay in school” as opposed to going out hunting and fishing with their communities and Elders during the last month of school.

They go on to detail how in order to be pretty and “dress up,” you just have to wear the conventional prom dress and suit deal--aka no traditional Inuit clothing. It’s an oddly reported story--considering how during parts of it they are talking about how important it is to learn about and incorporate culture--while at the same time saying “you will be a role model for younger ones if you don’t leave town and go out on the land with your family.” And I have to strongly disagree with that approach that off-routes traditional lifestyle because of some new institution’s decision to think it knows best, for example, when school should be held in light of 4000+ years of healthy cultural living.
Comment:  Whether they live on the rez or not, many people want to help Indians. They also want to help others in America or abroad. There's nothing mysterious about this impulse.

The question is what form the impulse takes. Conservatives with "socialist Indians" theories, missionaries with Bibles, teachers with "stay in school" messages, charitable workers with food and clothing, entrepreneurs with business opportunities, and me with my website and comic books. Some of these efforts help and some hurt.

It's hard to say that any of these efforts are all good or bad. I guess the underlying point is that people should listen and learn rather than presume and pontificate. Indian aren't children who need "parents" to help them grow up.

For more on the subject, see Rob Knows Best About Redskin? and Rob the Presumptuous White Man?

Below:  Maybe the Anglos and Inuit could compromise on prom dresses such as this one:


Anonymous said...

I find it perplexing in why the message--"stay in school" is negative to the author, the women writing this story. If you're an indian and you plan to make a living in the white man's world. I think that message needs to be taken seriously. You can't really succeed in the white man's world without an education. Unless you plan to live on the rez for the rest of your life. And also, that education will can be use to benefit the tribal communities. Because tribes tend to work with the U.S. Government on a daily basis from housing to health care etc...

Shadow Wolf--

Rob said...

As the article said, the message was "stay in school" as opposed to going hunting and fishing with your communities and elders during the last month of school. Apparently these Natives usually go hunting in May or June--presumably when the wildlife returns.

So the white teachers weren't telling the Native children that school is better than no school. They were telling them that the white man's education is better than a traditional Native education.

To be precise, they were telling the youngsters to abandon their age-old cultural practices for one extra month of schooling. They were saying that anything they learned in the classroom was more important than whatever they'd learn on the ice.