Why assume that Indigenous Peoples think alike?
Too often, others paint with a broad brush, sometimes for their own benefit
Indigenous peoples are a broad and diverse collection of confederacies, nations, clans and tribes. As a Blackfoot person, I often reflect on the stories, lessons and conversations I share with my grandparents and broader community as I navigate the world. These values that we share as a family, community and nation inform the decisions I make, even as I continue my education thousands of kilometres from our home on the Blood reserve southwest of Lethbridge, Alta.
And while many Indigenous communities might share certain cultural traits or values, our experiences and approaches remain distinct from one another. A Blackfoot person will inherit a different set of values than someone who is Inuit, Cree or Ojibway. Not only are we unique in terms of language and culture, but our experiences with colonial policies like the Indian residential school system will be different.
And, by virtue of the broad diversity of experiences and histories, Indigenous nations will have different needs and priorities.
Yet, so often, the approach of non-indigenous actors — in the media, in government, in activist organizations — is to treat all Indigenous Peoples the same way, to paint us with the same brush and assume we maintain the same opinions or values.
In fact, non-indigenous people have been known to amplify pan-indigenous messaging for their own benefit, as we see in the case of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Many Indigenous nations, in British Columbia particularly, note their opposition to the project on the grounds that they see the pipeline as posing an extreme environmental risk to their territories. Not only can pipelines pose direct threats to Indigenous nations’ physical territory, but the deep connection between land and culture means that pipelines can also pose a direct threat to the cultural and spiritual health of communities.
On the other side of the conversation, we also see that First Nations, notably in Alberta, and including my own, have supported or even expressed interest in purchasing an ownership stake in the project. Indigenous leaders in Alberta note its economic importance, and see it as helping to ensure that younger First Nations people have job prospects.
And while it might appear that these approaches are contradictory and possibly harmful to each other, I argue that it’s normal, and even healthy, to see these diverging opinions and approaches. Nations’ different economic, cultural and spiritual considerations will inherently lead to different thoughts and opinions.
It would be expected for every nation to have differing opinions on the project, based on the needs of their community. This doesn’t mean we need to fall into some type of combative dialogue. Instead, we should recognize and respect each other’s differences, and hope to foster an open and inclusive dialogue between different nations. This means organizations on each side of the discussion have to avoid demonizing or tokenizing the views and opinions of different Indigenous nations.
This also doesn’t mean shying away from hard conversations that need to be had across Canada and within the broader Indigenous community. These discussions obviously present a complex set of arguments regarding trans-territory projects and policies, and there are many issues that need to be thought through and resolved.
Yet, that conversation won’t be resolved by relying on adversarial proceedings. In recognizing the diverse experiences and values of Indigenous Peoples, we need to maintain the highest standards of respect and appreciation for one another.
In this respect, as we move toward properly recognizing diverse values and experiences, we are called to hold onto the common teachings of respect as we model a healthy approach to conflict resolution.
Tomas Jirousek, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy from the Kainai First Nation of southern Alberta, graduated from Mcgill University this past spring as a valedictorian after leading a successful campaign against the use of Redmen as the name of Mcgill’s men’s sports teams. He begins law school at University of Toronto in the fall.