June is National Indigenous History month, a time when we express solemn and celebratory focus on the lives of Indigenous peoples, their rich and diverse history, the many contributions Indigenous peoples have made, and perhaps above all – the resilience of Indigenous people around the world. June 21st is dedicated to National Indigenous Peoples Day, but every day is an opportunity to build bridges, tear down walls, plant seeds, extend hands, educate oneself about the issues and history. It is especially important to be reminded of the work done and the work yet to do. CBC Radio has been filled with the talent of Indigenous musicians and storytellers and access to Indigenous art has never been more accessible. This movement was started in 2009 with a passing of a unanimous motion in the House of Commons.
I am well into my research into the life of my great (x4) Cree grandmother born on the shores of Hudson Bay circa 1772. I have stumbled upon research and academic papers specifically about her and I have read reams of material about the Swampy Cree (Omushkego) in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. My focus is on Indigenous women by the very nature of my research, but not limited to. Indigenous women were left out of the writings by historians for the most part until the advent of women’s studies in 1970s examining feminist history and the role women played. One such historian wrote that “much can be learned from many stories of ordinary lives than one single story of exception (Jean Barman One Woman At A Time). One fact became abundantly clear in the material I read of the Hudson Bay Company – its success was dependent upon the work and sharing of knowledge by Indigenous women with European servants of The Company. European men, many from the Orkneys, came with little idea of how to survive in the treacherous climate of the North and were told, by officials of the Hudson Bay Company, men in England who never set foot on the shores of Hudson Bay, that unions with Indigenous women were forbidden. Had that rule been followed I doubt very much the Hudson Bay Company would have enjoyed 200 years of fur trade and I believe Canada would have developed much differently. Indigenous women created families with these men, while making the clothing needed for survival, making snowshoes needed for travel, killing small game needed for sustenance, providing negotiations with various groups and were interpreters and mapmakers and all the wisdom that came with those many skills and tasks. Women reacted in the early days of the fur trade, rather than being acted upon. They were not simple pawns in the hands of men, but chose a path for themselves, finding creative ways to hold tight to their culture and the wisdom passed down for generations. This is only one aspect of Indigenous History that I am examining.
Another vein of Indigenous history is that of creativity, specifically dance. Dance was outlawed, banned, illegal for Indigenous People from 1850s to 1951. In 1921, the head of Indian Affairs wrote a letter (Nature of Things 2022 – Why We Dance) wherein he explained why dancing for First Nations people must be controlled, stifled, limited – because dance brings power, strength, resilience, allows those who dance to remember who they are. Referring to dance as the devil’s work was a way to suppress it. But dancing went underground, to resurface when it was safe.
The role of dance is to deepen one’s identity. Dance begins in the womb, her mother’s heartbeat the rhythm. We all dance in our lives; many of us only as children. Dance is a part of every human culture, and some believe dance connects us to the spirit world.
There has been a strong resurgence of art and music, of creativity of all kinds amongst Indigenous peoples. Powwows today celebrate Indigenous dance, music, food, and art. The powwow is a relatively new construct in terms of the vast expanse of Indigenous history. The 1876 Indian Act restricted Indigenous people and their right to conduct their cultural ceremonies. Dance was still labeled an Indian Offence in 1921, despite such rights being provided for in treaties. Indigenous people clung tightly to their customs and celebrations, further evidence of their innate resilience. An amendment to the Act in 1951 allowed for these ceremonies without government interference. But generations of assimilation had already severed the tie for many Indigenous people. Reclaiming and reconnection has brought the powwow back into the light, with the transformation of dark moments into something beautiful with their songs and art and dance and food.
We all play a role in change, each one of us. I will connect with the many opportunities to learn and celebrate this month – going to my library, to my newspaper. Resources are abundant. I will tune in to the Indspire Awards on June 19th where the Indigenous community bestows “the highest honour upon its own people who demonstrate outstanding achievement.” Let’s celebrate together.