Indigenous Sacred Things: A Reward Chart
by waaseyaa'sin christine sy
A few years ago, I was really perplexed when I learned through the news that then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been honoured with a headdress by the Blood Tribe. I was launched into a state of discombobulation (a great, bouncy, seemingly frivolous word, it’s almost hard to take serious yet reflects all the things Harper in a Headdress made me feel). Here is the image that was heavily circulated and which I used for sometime as my FB profile pic as a means to illuminate and come to terms with the spectacle that was:
Aside from being saturated with this ridiculous image, I was able to reconcile the contradiction that Harper in a Headdress presented by recognizing that the Blood Tribe is its’ own entity which make its’ own decisions. It was only through recognizing and honouring that the Blood Tribe has inherent responsibilities to make decisions that are best for the Blood Tribe–like all individuals and groups within Indigenous Nations and Indigenous Nations themselves–that I was able to detach from the bizarre reality that this situation revealed. I figured that it wasn’t for me to poke at the decisions other Nations make about their lives and relationships. I did and do however reserve the right to sound in or out about decisions other Nations make if they impact me, my relations, or Nation.
Healthy detachment in place, Harper in a Headdress did actually prompt some interesting reflection on other occasions that were much closer to home . “Other occasions” being when Indigenous men gift white men sacred Indigenous items and markers of identity, endowing them with various kinds of power (i.e. spiritual, ceremonial, kinship) specific to Indigenous life-worlds.
I was reminded of an occasion when I was sitting in a class one day questioning the unchecked privilege and colonizing ideas of the old white guy who was teaching. He was denying both that colonization was a thing and that Canada was a colonizing entity in the lives of Indigenous Nations and peoples. In fact, he was arguing an idea that Canada was working in healthy ways with and for Indigenous peoples. He went so far as to cite his own experience (without ever locating himself as a white, able-bodied, highly educated man) with being successful in obtaining hundreds of thousands of research dollars throughout his career to do research about Aboriginals. I remember when he looked directly at me and in a moment of ‘I’ve had enough of you’ said: I’m a pipe carrier you know. And, I have an Indigenous name. Both were given to me by [insert name of powerful Indigenous man].
Instead of engaging me as an intelligent Anishinaabe woman the way a highly paid, senior scholar and educator in an academic setting might do, he became defensive and threatened. In the face of his power being destabilized by my assertions and questions he quickly jockeyed into a position of power-over. And, he did so using our markers, methods, and knowledges. The intent of this man’s statement was to get me to stop challenging his incorrectness; his method was to employ power over me–Indigenous power, to be exact. He pushed back at an Anishinaabe woman in her own territory, utilizing the Indigenous material items, markers of identity, and in this case, elitist relationships that inform some of our communities. His intent was to silence and it worked.
White-guy-with-power-over-me was destabilized by my lack of fear in questioning him, and questioning him with truth. In the moment of his destabilization he placed between us things that are supposed to be respected and honoured in Anishinaabe culture, generally speaking.
What a strategic, colonial dick, right?
I mean, who am I to speak back against the pipe, the sacred Indian name, and ___________? I mean, if _________ saw fit to give white guy a pipe and a name, then obviously I am the hysterical one for thinking this person is off. Who the heck am I for having a thought and for forming words that I then speak out loud that put him into question.
How dare I? How dare I so here, take this and stfu.
That’s what that moment amounted to.
While I have had much time to reflect on this matter and at least one other where an Indigenous man drew a white man in closer to the relationships of community (despite his family being racist and rife with unchecked racial and gendered privileges), I am prepared to respond to the bastardization of relationships, material items and markers of identity should someone use them against me again in this way in the future. I was also slightly piqued by the Indigenous man who gave this white guy these things. Didn’t he know what white folks do with people who have less power than they? Didn’t he know that there was the possibility that how this guy carried himself out in front of him might be different than how he carried himself out with the garbage collector or the woman? Did he not consider how power works? What was his purpose in giving this white guy these things? What was his agenda? How did it benefit him? Didn’t he know that we used to do these things historically but they never worked and in this, why would we keep employing the same methods to build relationship with those not on the same page as us when they don’t work? Why didn’t he tell that man that he couldn’t use these things against fellow Indigenous peoples, including women? Why didn’t he tell him about the limits of power inherent in these things? What would he think if he was in that room witnessing this exchange between me and this white guy with power over me? Would he silence me or would he hold this white guy accountable for improper use of these things? Do any Indigenous men hold white guys to account if they fail to listen to Indigenous women or queer/two-spirited Indigenous peoples? If this man was in the room though, it’s likely I would not have a voice at all because isn’t that the way when there is an important Indigenous man in the room? Even women will silence other women if we don’t uphold or keep centered (their) patriarchy, their Gods, or their men. (Interesting to note, I have been silenced by Indigenous women, who claim to be for women, for not upholding the men they deem worthy to be upheld. I fail to understand why if he’s your guy, he must also be my guy. Maybe, I have a different standard for upholding or uplifting; maybe, I have a story about your guy or know somebody who has a story about your guy. Maybe I don’t uphold but rather reinforce relationships and responsibilities that makes sense to me and how I understand life and maybe that has nothing to do with validating your guy or the celebrity that seems to be shaping the sacred these past decades. Maybe.)
All this gift giving and power-making makes me wonder, which women get to speak or question or make power-relations?
Which queer or two-spirited people get to speak or question or make power-relations?
Which of us gets to say who gets the pipe or the names? Do we get to say, “That’s wrong. How you are using that against me is wrong.”? Or, “What would your friend who gave you these things say if he knew how you were using them?” Or, “When was the last time you honoured these things? Feasted them? Smudged them or gave them a drink? When was the last time you used them in the way intended?” Or, “From where I stand, based on your behaviour and your attitudes, the matter of these things being in your care needs to be revisited.”
White men must learn to listen, hear, and respect the voice, thought, analyses put forth by Indigenous women and queer and two-spirited peoples. This must begin happening now, especially when we are talking to you as we stand on our own lands. Indigenous men must think through the giving of our things to non-Indigenous peoples, particularly white men, and look into the future to see how these people might be using the gifts you give them against us when you are not around.
The other day, Prime Minister Trudeau was honoured with a head dress by the Tsuut’ina First Nation. It too made the news. The image is just as bizarre to me as the one of Stephen Harper:
Again, the default is to respect the decisions and agenda of Tsuut’ina Nation as well as the relationships this Nation fosters. As Anishinaabe, it is not my business to speak on this. That said, I do wonder, given the Canadian form of Chief and Council government imposed on Indigenous Nations, which is supported by and animated through patriarchal ideology, if this decision to give Justin Trudeau and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde each an honourary headdress was based on a decision making process that included all the people of the Tsuut’ina Nation. It would be interesting to learn about this decision making process and to understand the agenda. Just meandering away in my own thinking here, if the Tsuut’ina Nation made this decision with economic development in mind and that economic development has to do with resource extraction or exploitation, then Tsuut’ina Nation, as a matter of honouring it’s relationship with bordering Indigenous Nations or those who will be impacted by such economic development projects, must be accountable to others as well. So, I really do wonder what their agenda is in giving the Prime Minister and the AFN National Chief these headdresses and I wonder who was involved in the decision making. I also wonder if this Nation thinks about if or how PM Trudeau is going to listen to the many Indigenous women and their communities of relationships who are presently and actively resisting economic development based resource extraction or exploitation? (I sincerely hope the Anishinaabe Nation does not ever give anything to the PM that is sacred to us because he is not going to listen to the women and he, along with his Anishinaabe supporters, are going to push that Energy East pipeline through our territories.)
All this said, many folks from here and there are fairly skeptical of this most recent honouring. Like many, I am wary of it, too. I’m worried about the deadening of the meanings we have and processes we have for securing relationships and responsibilities that are bound to persisting a good life for Indigenous peoples and our relations; good life that is grounded in our laws, visions, and ancestral responsibilities, not Canadian middle class visions of a good life. I’m tired of the optics, the performances, the pomp, and the spectacle. I don’t believe in it and I don’t trust it. Apparently, many of us (including Oprah) are in sync:
This meme is funny because in part, the message it conveys, is true. Humour is a very smart way to get at a thing and it also relieves stress. I think many of us find this most recent headdress honouring and performance to be distressing. On a surface level, we may joke and find the ridiculous in it however at a deeper level it means that some of us are nurturing relationships with the guy who is going to serve the needs of some of us (read rich/middle class or aspiring to be rich/middle class Indigenous peeps) while ignoring or coming down on the needs of many of us (read, for example, land protectors). That’s scary.
I’m feeling pretty angsty about the pattern I’m noticing of the powerful Indigenous men giving our things away to non-Indigenous people. I’ve not been around a long time and there is a whole lot I don’t know but I do know this: nothing good comes of Indigenous men giving white guys our things especially when those white guys don’t listen to Indigenous women or queer/two-spirited Indigenous peoples. Nothing good comes from it but that is not going to stop this new day from happening. In the spirit then, of getting on the parody band wagon of disseminating and getting Indigenous sacred things, I’ve created a table to show what you need to do to get in on it. It turns out, it’s not just headdresses for everyone:
|Sacred Indigenous Things||What Indigenous People Have to Do to Get The Thing
|What Non-Indigenous People Have to Do to Get The Thing|
|a dreamcatcher||suffer from poor sleep and/or nightmares. go to the bush, get willow, find (or make) rawhide. make the damn thing yourself.||nothing, just be a white person. better, be a white man.
have money to buy one pretty much anywhere or attend a workshop where a real Indian is making them.
|a tattoo||have a dream, get it interpreted by a recognized Elder vis-à-vis all the ways one gets something interpreted by an Elder, have it approved in a community setting; learn the language, too (or a few songs).||nothing, just be a white person. again, better if you are a white man. best if you have lots of zhoon because then you have more choices of sacred Indigenous tattoos and can pay the best tattoo artist to give it to you. know one Indigenous person who can tell you the significance of the tattoo that Matty the tattoo artist gave you.|
|a blanket||give one full day of your time and knowledge without pay. first, hitchhike to get to the gig.||nothing. just you be you. well, maybe shiver.|
|a pipe ceremony||be really sick. or, offer tobacco, clothe, and an open amount of time as helper.||be white. be white man. actually it doesn’t matter; you don’t even have to show up. we’ll pray for your disrespectful ways and hope creation looks out for you.|
|a pipe||see ‘tattoo’. or, be recognized by the esteemed in your community. do something that is seen as most righteous and humble. do it for a really, really, really, long time. take the backlash when you do not care for the pipe properly or use it in a way that does not conform with the multitude of ways that people say it should be used (e.g be a man, be a woman; touch don’t touch. it’s varies)||be a white man who is buds with an Indigenous holy man. that is all.|
|indian name||carry your tobacco tie around for a decade, wait to connect with someone you trust who has the capability to dream your name. or, do a four day fast without food or water (not included: a listing of the resources required to do a four day fast). or, be born into relations who honour these ways.||hang around with an Indigenous holy man for a few seasons.|
|a clan||see above. add: or, research your family. or, follow the rules of lineage that are asserted by some in your community or network of relations. things are changing, which means there are many ways for us to try to reconnect with who we are.||nothing much. just be a white person with a kind of power and hang out with an Indigenous holy person who needs you for something.|
|eagle feather||go walk in the bush where you know there is an eagle’s nest and see if one is gifted to you. or, do something incredibly helpful, honourable, or supportive to a member of your community. enter into a community or ceremonial process whereby the feather is legitimated as being meant for you based on your actions. keeping the feather: (this applies to all Sacred Indigenous Things) – continually be engaged in a spiritual process of honouring the feather and the meaning for which it was bestowed upon you. be prepared to give the feather or item away because this does not belong to you – it is a tool for you to do the work needed for your community. there are conditions when a feather or other item must be gifted to the next person.||just be a white man with power. there is also a process where white women can say, “We need to get feathers for these (white) people who are coming.”
Indigenous peoples actually no longer even have to be involved in this anymore (although it certainly is best to have at least one Indigenous person to say they were gifted the feather that is being used in ceremony. if not this, an Indigenous person to open the ceremony with prayer is primo).
|moccasins, mukluks, or anything hand-made or hand-beaded||buy them yourself. or, make them yourself. or, win them in a contest.||just be you.|
|a travelling song||be committed to your people, your culture, your community and show evidence of this in quiet, steadfast, humble ways. when you leave, depart to pursue this same way of being in another Indigenous community.||show up, be nice, and leave again.|
|a headdress||be an Indigenous man who is well connected. there is the rare occasion when a woman may receive a head dress however in this case, her earning of it through her work and spiritual relationships comes after the giving: she must survive being branded a heretic for accepting and donning a man’s sacred material item when she knows darn well this is a man’s thing. best wear a pretty beaded crown.||be a powerful white man who is connected to a powerful Indigenous man or Indigenous men. provide some kind of evidence that you have a heart and/or are trying. it’s true Asian-Canadians can get things, too (i.e. David Suzuki, Adrienne Clark) but that just distorts the binary of the indian man and the white man so we won’t go there in this reward chart.|
All chuckles aside, there are many of us who take our ways serious and are very thoughtful in the bestowal of our material things or ways to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. There are deeply political, spiritual, and social reasons for gifting and honouring that are grounded in thousand year old processes. There are many of us who are deeply committed to our epistemologies and the materiality that emerges from some of them. We know they are life-giving, have always been, and always will be. Having been gifted with various responsibilities that are embodied in both material items and the processes inscribed in honouring those items, I want to affirm that this reward chart is only a actualization of one, slippery truth that is occurring in our worlds today. There is a deeper truth that many of us live in and honour. Our bundles are important to us as individuals because they keep us grounded, centered, and connected to creation; they are important to our Nations because they keep us linked forever to our ancestors and our descendants, the ones we work for; they are important to all our relations because they actually come from our relations and from spirit. There is no performance here in the quiet, sometimes inconvenient processes of caring for our bundles. There are no cameras, no crowds, no news articles. There is no “If you are good to me, I’ll give you a _________.” Here in the vital, quiet work of making and keeping our sacred items, markers of identity, and relationships alive, there is only a bit of asemaa, ishkode, some nibi amiinawaa miijim, a song or two, a few words, and spirit. Always spirit. *zaasaakwe* I hope that the power of our ancestors, descendants and all our relations are with us as we navigate the road with Prime Minister Trudeau and Oil over the next few years. I sense that much of the public honourings we see in the news has to do with the egos of “leaders” and their desire for power, prestige, and money and very little to do with the relationships and responsibilities embedded in spirit and inaakonigewin, our laws and the reasons we have them/do them.