Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Learning to love the smudge

I used to find the ceremonies annoying — until I realized what their presence signifies

By: Mary Agnes Welch

Winnipeg Free Press

For a long time, I found smudge ceremonies kind of a pain.

Those are the aboriginal ceremonies where sage or another traditional medicine is burned in a little bowl and passed around so everyone can waft the smoke over themselves. It's for purification, and it's a solemn, slow, peaceful, pungent ritual.

These days, it happens before pretty much every public event in the North End. Reporters covering press conferences at Thunderbird House or as part of a residential schools announcement know they can arrive a little late and still get the news because it takes a half-hour for all the politicians and dignitaries to smudge. If you're a self-important journalist juggling two other stories who only plugged the parking meter for an hour, the whole thing can make you antsy, especially if the smudge is prolonged by prayers in Cree or Ojibwa by an elder and a drum circle song or two.

Here's the thing, though. It's remarkable the smudge ceremony exists at all.

Any fair reading of history must end with the conclusion that, especially in Western Canada, there was a systematic attempt to smother the language, culture and political power of Canada's original people. This isn't a bleeding-heart revision. It's clear in the words and enforcement of the Indian Act, in the oral and documentary record of residential schools and in the one-sided, bad-faith dealings that saw the signing of the numbered treaties that bind us today in partnership with First Nations. Many Canadians haven't caught up to the fact that, for most of the last century, Canada's treatment of indigenous people was at odds with every modern human rights convention the wars and atrocities of the 20th century spawned.

And yet whenever the premier of Manitoba makes an announcement at Children of the Earth high school or signs a Manitoba Hydro agreement at a northern First Nation, he participates in all the traditional rituals we spent decades trying to eradicate. Stop by the Head Start program in West Broadway and you smell the spicy remnants of that morning's smudge, proof of just how badly we failed to assimilate and eradicate aboriginal culture.

It's the same with dancing.

For a long time, when I thought about a street party at Portage and Main, I thought of the day the Jets returned and how the city celebrated a cultural touchstone that defines it. Now, a year after the Idle No More movement began, I picture a round dance or jingle dresses when I wonder why I'm stuck in traffic on Portage and being waved down a side street by police.

Indigenous people have taken back one of Canada's most famous intersections, making it the place to protest government policies, welcome a United Nations envoy or try to actively promote reconciliation by getting awkward white people on their feet.

Again, it's amazing those dances still exist. Until 1951, they were illegal on reserves, let alone in the middle of downtown. Not only could indigenous people not dance, they couldn't wear any of the traditional clothing that's integral to their culture and ceremony, including all the extraordinary beaded moccasins I coveted at a powwow at the Fisher River First Nation I went to this fall.

The pass system that barred First Nations people from leaving their reserves disrupted the whole regional culture of ceremonies and dancing. And yet, every summer out my kitchen window I can watch a powwow on my community-club field.

While many second-generation Canadians can barely speak a word of Ukrainian or German or Tagalog, I am frequently surprised how common indigenous language still is. I can't count the number of times I've been on reserves, especially up north, talking to folks who switch into Cree when they want to say something private to their sister or husband.

And it's not just elders who have kept their languages. I once sat in a downtown boardroom with the chief and council from St. Theresa Point, who were going over a report with me on the lack of running water in their community. That meeting was fun for two reasons.

First, it produced one of my favourite First Nations jokes when one of the councillors introduced himself as being from Dire Straits First Nation. Second, I could barely get an English word in edgewise. Every question I asked prompted a round of kibitzing and dickering in Oji-Cree among the councillors, some of whom weren't much older than myself.

Despite generations of residential schools, where students were beaten for speaking anything but English and isolated from homes where their mother tongue was spoken, indigenous languages were never really lost.

There are online Ojibwa dictionaries, school language classes and traditional names for bands that have been reclaimed and are now in common use.

So, now that I've learned some of the history and how a culture survived against government policies designed to overwhelm it, I'll put a little extra money in the meter, settle in for some drumming and the smudge and say miigwetch.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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