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PSA: Indigenous Cultures Aren’t Ancient History—They’re Rich, Vibrant and Evolving

"Letting our culture evolve and change in interesting ways shows that we are secure in its survival"

Young members of the First Nations during a traditional Pow Wow competition, during Calgary Stampede 2016

Young members of the First Nations during a traditional Pow Wow competition, during Calgary Stampede 2016. (Photo: Getty)

I often take my connection to Nehiyawak culture and all the beauty of it for granted—sometimes I reach past the buffalo burger for a plate of poutine or head to a movie instead of a round dance. But in November, after my father passed away, I found that my culture was what helped to sustain me. As my dad made his journey, community fire-keepers started a fire, which they tended for three days. We opened the third day with a pipe ceremony. Then our family stood together as a drum group honoured our loved one. As I listened to the drum, instead of being wracked with grief, I felt a connection to my dad—and to all of my ancestors, who had stood in the same ceremonies, heard the same drums and felt the same sense of peace.

It’s important to Indigenous people’s emotional and spiritual health to keep our culture and traditions alive. That has been a challenge, as government policies have tried to cut this link to our past through residential schools and laws against ceremony. Despite this, dedicated elders and community members kept our traditions—like the pow wow—alive.

I live in Saskatchewan, where across the Treaty territories there is at least one pow wow every weekend from May until September. I attend to dance in the intertribals, gush over all the chubby babies and admire the regalia of the dancers. Regalia is specific to the different dances—fancy shawl, jingle dress, grass dance and traditional have different outfits, but all dancers wear beadwork on their moccasins, leggings or capes. The beadwork designs can be customized to the dancer’s family history, and some designs are passed down through the family. Some dancers choose to express their spiritual journeys, while others just want to express their personal tastes.

A few years ago, at a pow wow on Standing Buffalo First Nation, I saw a female fancy shawl dancer wearing the most amazing beaded cape; in the beadwork, the artist had included a blue Nike checkmark. Sure, it’s a corporate trademark and we’re all supposed to hate corporatization, but it was also young and cool, just like the teenager that danced under it.

Seeing a modern symbol in a traditional medium kind of blew my mind. I had always seen my culture as something that we were trying hard to preserve and here, young people were past that jazz. Letting our culture evolve and change in interesting ways shows that we are secure in its survival. Trying to keep it safe and under wraps can smother it.

That Nike beaded cape inspired my book of short stories, Glass Beads. In fact, the cover of the book is a pair of beaded high heeled Chuck Taylors; the juxtaposition of beads with a sexy sporty shoe complements a book about First Nations people spending most of their lives off-reserve and colliding with mainstream culture. The beaded Chucks also epitomizes the revitalization and resilience of Indigenous cultures. Despite all that we have been subjected to, we are still here—and making some very fine, witty art.

Culture is a living thing, rich, vibrant and evolving. It’s always exciting to see new ways of interpreting the old ways—and these three women are doing exactly that.

Adina Tarralik Duffy, artist and fashion designer

Adina Tarralik Duffy standing in front of her art, wearing her hair in a bun and large bone earrings

“Creating art was partially a way to keep myself busy, combined with realizing I had all this stuff around me that I could put to use. I started to look at things in terms of how much more we have today compared to the past and how we really have no excuse not to utilize what we have.

But I never really connected what I do with my culture—I didn’t see it in those terms. I was just walking along the beach one day and happened across two perfectly matched beluga bones and thought, ‘Wow, these would make beautiful earrings.’ They were truly a gift from the ocean that washed up by my feet. I was already working a lot with caribou antler, but there was just something special about those beluga bones.

It’s only as a young adult that I started thinking about our ancestors and how much they were able to create from seemingly nothing, this idea of using everything you have and not wasting anything. Inuit are incredibly innovative and skilled improvisors. Even without realizing it, they can create something from what might otherwise be considered trash. I wouldn’t compare myself to the skill of my ancestors, but they are the ones I respect and admire the most. I think about what they were able to do in one of the harshest climates in the world, creating some of the most igneous garments, which were not only practical but absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. They wrought art out of everything.

It is a privilege to be able to work with precious things like parts of an animal. You can feel the life force in the bones, skin and fur. You carry this feeling like, ‘If my ancestor had this in their hands, what would they have made? Would this have kept them alive? Would this have been the animal that made the difference between life and death?’ That’s how precious the material is. Inspiration comes from that alone many times. To honour what you have in your hands. To honour the people that got you here. To not waste what you have available to you, whatever that may be.”

Adina Tarralik Duffy is from Coral Harbour, Nunavut. She creates jewelry from bone and antlers and incorporates her Inuit culture into her clothing designs.

Kanina Terry, chef and caterer

Kanina Terry cleaning salmon on a table outside. She is wearing a dark baseball cap and a brown jacket.

“After the birth of my son, I realized that I knew very little about the foods my community used to eat (and that many people in my community, mostly Elders, continue to eat).

That’s why, in recent years, my passion has turned to learning as much as I can about the traditional foods of the Anishinaabeg. As a chef and caterer, I work with people in communities north of Sioux Lookout, and I am continuously learning practices from people who have vast knowledge of our traditional foods. When an animal was harvested, we used every part of the animal. We knew that the animal gave its life for our survival which made us connect the eating to the larger world. Traditional meat is more nourishing; I believe it helps address modern problems like diabetes and obesity. We knew how to preserve food to last throughout the long winters, and throughout summers without refrigeration. We had knowledge of plants and their value as food and medicine.

But I’ve also learned about the impacts of colonization on our diets. The reserve system attempted to sever our connection to the land and our traditional foods. Indian residential schools separated children from their families and as a result, many lack the life skill of cooking from ingredients, not packages.

Much of what I am doing now revolves around reclaiming and relearning practices that were taken from my family. I’m learning how to tan hides into buckskin and to create useful products with that buckskin. Last year I sewed my own jingle dress and danced jingle for the first time since I was a child. I’m learning Anishinaabemowin. This year I hope to get my license so I can legally buy and carry a firearm to hunt with my family—and most importantly, feed them.

My family, friends and the people I have worked with inspire me to learn, cook and share more mino-miijim (good food). I’m inspired by hearing stories of how my shoomis and gookom fed their large family by hunting, fishing and trapping. I’m inspired by posts featuring delicious country food from my Facebook friends. And I’m inspired when I hear my son state, ‘Mom, I want to be a hunter.’”

Kanina Terry works with traditional foods from the Ojibwe Anishinaabekwe from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) in northern Ontario.

Connie Kulhavey, artist and educator

Connie Kulhavey surrounded by kids in a school gym

“I will teach anyone who is interested in learning about our medicines or traditional stories, which provide insight into the values of the Métis people. In particular though, I love working with students, from kindergarten to university because I love how excited this learning makes them. This past year, I have taught in over 90 different classrooms. Whether I’m demonstrating flower beadwork or birch tree medicines, I always include a Métis story.

We live in different times, so it is a privilege to learn and bring back some of our old teachings. Sharing these teachings makes me feel like I am connecting with my ancestors.

There are moments when I ask myself if I am doing the right thing by sharing the medicines: will the students misinterpret the teaching? Will they abuse this sacred knowledge? But then a sign will come to me, usually from the students in a class, who get excited about going into the forest and looking at the living trees and flowers through a different lens. It helps them to connect them to nature, culture and the future. And in that way, it helps me too.”

Connie Kulhavey has roots in Hay River, Northwest Territories and currently lives in Nanaimo, British Columbia. She creates birchtree paintings and works in beadwork.

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