Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Being Invisible

I had a massage today and spent the whole time on the table explaining about being Mohawk to a young beautiful woman who, while good at her job, knew nothing about the fact that yes, there are still Mohawks in the world and yes, we function well in the city and get massages from time to time.

Side note – I’m a vain creature and so devote a lot of my time to getting my hair cut and dyed, and manicures, and pedicures, and facials and massages, and doing yoga and looking for fabulous handbags and shoes, and the coolest ensembles. Because I’m just that way. But also, I contemplate a lot what my friend the glorious Audra Simpson, Kanienkaha’keh scholar and thinker and fellow-girl-about-town says: Sovereignty begins with the self, and that self should be presented stylishly.

But why is it that every time I go somewhere, I have to explain myself? I guess people are curious, and I suppose if I was Irish, or Australian, or Burundian, or Tibetan I'd be explaining myself as well. But in this city there’s an expectation, an acceptance, of the exotic, the newly-emigrated, the multi-cultural and the differently skinned, and people want to hear their story. But this is my city, this is my territory. Why do I have to explain all the time about being an indigenous person? And more than that, a functioning, funky downtown denizen?

It’s interesting to me that even casual encounters like this one mean I have to educate. I spend a lot of my time in this culture educating people. It’s alternately fascinating and infuriating. I mean, why should I end up being a freaking ambassador for all indigenous people? What are we, invisible? And this lovely young woman was from Cambridge, of all places, up the Grand River a ways and you’d think she at least would have the faintest idea of the fact that we’re still here and not some freakish museum artefact.

Guess not.

I’m fascinated as to why that is. But I think about something my kids have complained about, something which they raise vehement objection to and which means they have to educate and explain. In the course of learning their curriculum at various points in their schooling, indigenous people are looked at as a part of history, a people that are essentially extinct, that exist only in the dry pages of history and as preserved and as artificial to them as a museum exhibit. My daughter was especially vocal about it. She feels that this has the effect of diminishing her entire vibrant and beloved Kanienkaha’keh family and the reserve, the community that she is completely aware of as she and her brother grew up with a foothold there, a knowledge of the place and their family’s history and by extension, the story of the Kanienkaha’keh at Six Nations. Both her and her brother raise the objection that they are here, not extinct, that they are indigenous and that they and their family thrive.

Indigenous people have to be invisible to the rest of the culture. It has to be that way. How else can you be comfortable about the fact that the very land upon which you stand was stolen, cheated, and made a commodity? It suits the dominant culture to pretend this. Then you don’t have to deal with the very messy reality of land claims/reclamations/residential schools/teen suicides and all the other dirty secrets of the colonial corporate franchise. Then those “aboriginal” people are an abstract and invisible. Extinct. Or if you do encounter them, it’s the drunken relic on a street corner, the empty-eyed drug-addicted prostitute whoring for her fix. Or those filthy people living on those god-forsaken hellholes up north and we may as well send them body bags when the pandemic erupts because what else is there to do? They are already dead.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I refuse to be invisible. And so it comes down to this: being plugged into this culture means that yes, I have to be the freaking ambassador, at least in my little corner of Tkaronto, for the Kanienkaha’keh nation. Maybe I’m not the best one my people could ask for, but at least I know something of my culture and our ways, and can explain it. At least the colonial corporate franchise couldn’t take that away.

I may not know everything, but I know this. I can tell you a story, a story about a people, with a strong, intensely democratic political system, an emotional tie to the earth, an oral tradition that has survived, and a dynamic culture that exists despite the attempt of the dominant culture to silence us, to make us invisible. And that counts for something, damn straight.