Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Career Opportunites (the ones that never knock)

One of the things about being the staff representative for a union is that you end up being equal parts paralegal, confidante, shit disturber, therapist, cheerleader, and career counselor. Lately I’ve been doing a large amount of the latter.

I was thinking about that the other day, and came to the realization that career counselling needs to be more prominent, especially in indigenous communities. We need to have role models about how to have a career. The vast majority of us come out of homes where, if you were lucky, Dad was an ironworker or a factory worker, Mom was in healthcare but more likely stayed at home and occasionally went strawberry-picking or picking tobacco (if you lived on Six, that’s what your mom did). You might have had a relative who was in the DIAND bureaucracy, or aunties that were teachers, but what about other professions? Where are all the lawyers, the bankers and economists, the designers, the professors, the doctors, the journalists, the IT and telecommunications specialists? The answer is nowhere. We all know why that is, but it’s becoming different now. It’s only been in the most recent generations where the combination of post-secondary education, movement into the cities, and family stability created the opportunity for our young people to have actual careers.

I say this because one of my roles in my career – which I bootstrapped into out of a job, by the way – is to help people when they are in crisis in the workplace, and quite often, that is when they are faced with a discipline track because of some incident that happened while they were on the job. One of my units is comprised of perhaps 85% aboriginal people, working in various positions in the broadcast industry, and when they get in trouble, the general trend seems to be they simply quit rather than let me work with them through the conflict and deal with what’s happening in the workplace. Quitting seems to be easier and solves the problem right then and there, albeit permanently.

I think that’s interesting. We have spent so much of our focus on GETTING employment that we haven’t really thought about – or prepared our young people – for KEEPING that employment. Because one of the things that happens in any job is that there will be conflict between managers and employees, there will be conflict between co-workers, and there is a mechanism that the corporate world – like it or not, in order to be employed we have to abide by its cultural rules – engages in so that people understand their obligations under their employment agreements. Perhaps our backgrounds don’t prepare us for dealing with conflict in a healthy way – these things have been broken, lost to us because of the rupture with our old ways and the demands of the colonial process. Perhaps it is because we grew up with unhealthy conflict and we can only turn away from it in self-perservation…But whatever the reason, in order for us to keep meaningful employment, to have a career, we have to learn how to work with the conflict, work through it and emerge victorious on the other side.

That is the secret that white people have, the edge they have developed over us. White privilege allowed that to happen but now they have generational role models on how to deal with it.

Navigating through work conflict is important. Now I should be careful here, it’s a generalization to say that – and how many times does it erupt in the angry white dude bringing a semi-automatic to work and solving his problems that way? But for every crazy mofo like that, the vast majority swim quite happily through shark-infested waters and reap the benefits that having a career implies. And I’m not just talking about the monetary benefits – I’m talking about the empowerment for an entire community. For us indigenous types, seeing healthy role models out in our communities is crucial. In fact, I’d go so far as to saying it's as important as breathing for us right now.

Sure it’s hard work and it’s not without its sacrifices, getting and keeping a career, but dammit we can be innovative and bring to our work our core indigenous values and our spirit without surrendering to an assimilationist model. I am quite open about telling my colleages and members that I plan to infect them with my Haudenosaunee values and ways; the dominant culture should get more of it. This culture is built upon the bones of our ancestors; we have every right to be out there working and remaking the nature of work with our own indigenous toolkit. So for those of us who are doing it, we have to become the role models. There’s generations of our young people who will benefit from it, even if right now it feels like we are toiling in obscurity.

I know it places a burden on those of us who are out there doing stuff, but like it or not, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we have a duty to those who are coming after us. It’s all part of our continuum as First Nations people and a value that everyone else benefits from. So let’s do it. Let’s be the role models.

(God help anyone who tries to look up to me... but I suppose there’s worse things in life than being a shit-disturbing, troublemaking, shoe-loving rock’n’roll union grrl).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My recovery from Comments Sections, or a boycott for practical purposes

I really have to stop reading them, I really do.

Those comments sections in the Globe and Mail and the CBC – the sites I look at the most – make me stark-raving, tear-my-hair-out-by the roots insane. I don’t know why I feel compelled to look at them, but I do. It must be the same natural inclination that causes us to look at disasters, at train wrecks, at all manner of calamity with the voyeur’s fetishistic appreciation –

I’m starting to question why they are there, what is the purpose of them (other than to make this indigenous woman freak out)? What is this fad, this desire to comment on every story, like average citizen Joe Blow from Bumfuck Idunnoknow is a qualified expert on every little thing that happens in the world? There’s got to be more accountability, too. I bet if people were forced to leave an email address there’d be less of this bullshit. Like in pre-Internet days when you sent a letter to the editor of a newspaper they would publish your full name and city where you lived. So at least you had to own what you said. Here on these comments sections it’s the Wild West, with everyone shooting from the hip and shooting all over the place – into the sky, into buildings and trees and stray dogs and me.

But I have to stop reading them, I really have to. Like an addict, I have to stop.

Because this morning I read a comment so vitriolic, so laced with racism and ugliness and bile that it still makes me want to cry hot tears of angry bitterness. In fact, I think I did. I think I actually broke down and wanted to smash something. I paced around my office like the crazed puma at the zoo that is psychotic from captivity.

The comment appeared after an article in the Globe and Mail discussing Google’s threat to pull out of China due to the censorship by the communist government. As I am always interested in how business decisions impact workers’ lives and other assorted developments, I had finished reading the article and was idly scanning through the comments sections when I read some fucking swine of a commentator – who named himself “Sooty Harry” because he can’t possibly be THAT balls out dirty – meandering about Chinese censorhip and then the improvised weapon of mass destruction --

“… Robert Pickton putting the muzzle of a gun up a Native woman’s vagina and pulling the trigger saved her from a life of degradation and drug addiction.”


I think I may actually have seen red. I went cold all over and felt a lump come to my throat. I felt violated and desecrated all in one breath by one stupid cast-off sentence probably written by some fucking white privilege muthafucker sitting in his stupid office cubicle over in some Bay Street tower plotting to part a bunch of pensioners from their life savings.

Now, the sentence is not verbatim. I should have copied it in its entirety to be more truthful about it here, but I didn’t. I instantly notified the moderator and got the plug pulled on that obscenity within five minutes, but still – why the hell did this fucking asshole feel he had the right to pull that kind of hyperbolic verbal diarrhea? And why the hell does the most venerated national newspaper in this country feel the need to entitle its readership to the ability to spew this kind of perverted racist swill?

I had to stop reading the comments around any issues regarding all aboriginal people because the level of racism that permeates these forums proved to me that most Canadians have zero regard, tolerance or understanding for my people and the reasons for the decimation in our communities. Which is why I naively thought that reading about Google in China was going to be free from this kind of shit. Wrong.

I am going to start writing impassioned letters to the people who run these boards and demand that there be more accountability. Because I’d love to show up at the door of the motherfucker who felt he could write that comment and ask why he felt he could just blithely say shit like that without thinking through the consequences, and have him tell me his reasons, just him and all six feet of righteous Haudenosaunee warrior woman in war mode. And then it would be a whole other ballgame now, wouldn’t it?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Angry All the Time

Yesterday I was waiting in line at Shoppers Drug Mart and an elderly Caribbean lady, perhaps in her mid-70’s, was at the lone cashier and fumbling a little with her bag and her purse and her wallet – basically taking some time to get through the check-out process. The woman behind her, a white woman maybe a few years older than me, marched up to the cashier, put all her purchases on the counter and basically stood there tapping her foot and frowning and muttering at the elderly lady and the cashier, who was also a young black woman. She essentially pushed the older black woman aside and was acting extremely put-upon that the other woman was taking a bit of time to finish her transaction. The older woman looked at the white woman with this expression of – damn, it was heartbreaking. Resignation and a touch of humiliation and sadness. Defeat even.

The guy behind me was a young black man and I turned to him and muttered, “White privilege in action.” He looked at me with the same kind of look and shrugged. I watched as the elderly lady gathered up her purchases and walked slowly away. She was also leaning on a cane. The white woman brushed past her and wouldn’t even hold the door open for her.

I don’t know why it is but these sorts of incidents infuriate me more and more as I get older. Perhaps it is part of my personal decolonization process, a result of my own awareness and sense of outrage at the way the world is. Perhaps it is because I am starting to get tired of these years of struggle and have no patience for the visible signs all around me of white privilege in action. I’m starting to realize that I have an inner rage inside me that I have to keep clamped down on, only it’s becoming more and more difficult as time goes on to contain it. No wonder I have hypertension and have to take drugs for it. No wonder it’s a prevailing condition among indigenous and African peoples in North America. I bet if there was no colonial system that’s propped up by the twin pillars of race supremacy and capitalism we wouldn’t be having this disease.

I never thought of myself as a particularly angry person but it’s always there, just below the surface, waiting for little incidents like the lineup at Shoppers Drug Mart to fan the flame into an outright inferno. One of the reasons I got into being a union activist was that injustice makes me crazy. I felt that if I could fight in the workplace, where I spend most of my time anyway, and advocate for other people, at least I could feel like I was doing something and not just bending over, waiting to take the corporate boot up my backside.

The other thing that I’ve got to try and get a handle on is the burning rage I feel when I find myself driving through a particularly well-heeled neighbourhood. Where even five years ago I would think, “Wow, look at the beautiful houses”, now all I can think about is “Wow, look at that wealth on our stolen land” while thinking of some of houses on my Rez. Intellectually I know this is a waste of time and gets me nowhere, but the resentment and the envy and just how crazy this fact of reality makes me is starting to feel poisonous. Dangerous, even. This is the kind of thing that eats away at a person like cancer. Or gives them cancer. Or a stroke.

Intellectually I know this thinking is futile and that I should just let it go. This is why I take yoga, why I meditate. To try and work through this shit and let it go. But dealing with things, working through the anger, is hard. It just feels righteous and easier to be angry. It’s not though.

Being angry is exhausting, and in the end, what is the point? Better to work around it. Educate, resist, lead through example. And in the end, I hope it’s easier for my kids. I probably unconsciously chose that path for them by having their father be a white man. They will get the easier ride in life because they will have white privilege working for them instead of against them – until they open their mouths and announce the fact of their Haudenosaunee DNA. That makes me feel a bit better. I’ve successfully infiltrated by the best means possible, launching my own onkwehonwe ambassadors into the world. I hope they don’t have to be angry all the time.

Monday, January 4, 2010

People always say “but you don’t LOOK like an Indian…”

On the weekend I had the pleasure of hanging out with my family for my niece Lilly’s 9th birthday party. I saw several of my cousins on my mom’s side of the family that I haven’t seen in a while, got to exclaim over several of the new generation and how big they are getting, and to dandle one of our newest family members in my lap for awhile (who coincidentally turns one on the same day as my sister – look out!). I also got to see one of my aunts, my mom’s middle sister, and of course shoot the shit with my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister and her husband and assorted other family members. Looking around the room the family resemblance is obvious – my mother’s family are very stockily built with wide, round faces, skin with an obvious yellow tint, wide, mobile mouths and loud, happy laughs. My father’s family are very tall – none of the men are under 6 feet – which is where my height is factored in but I look mostly like my mother’s side of the family.

I have lived off the reserve since I was 17, and have forever gotten the reflex remark on the part of new acquaintances, colleagues, and just-barely-met people who say, “You’re Indian? But you don’t LOOK like an Indian…”

First of all, what the hell does that mean? I don’t look like Disney’s Pocahontas? That’s not what most Indians look like anyway. And I don’t look like any of the stereotypical ideals of what an Indian woman is supposed to look like anyway. I’m 5’11”, I wear black almost exclusively and my hair is –well, it’s whatever colour I want it to be. And no, I don’t look like you think I’m supposed to because I’m a Kanienkehah’keh and we don’t look like Lakota, or Ojibway, or Cree or Nisga’a or the Mikmaaq. We’re a DIFFERENT people. Our language is different, we are related to the Cherokee more than the Ojibway or Algonkin, and besides, we’re the Children of Sky Woman and the proud followers of the Gayanashagowa. We call ourselves onkwehonwe, the real people. So that tells you something of my culture right there.

On my mother’s side I am privileged to trace my lineage in an unbroken line of Kanienkehah’keh women straight back to the Mohawk Valley and from there – who knows? On my father’s side I know there is a French woman – my paternal grandfather’s mother was originally from Montreal – a scandal at the time but probably more common than not – and my paternal grandmother’s grandfather was, according to family legend, an English nobleman who abandoned his New World family in the Mohawk Valley when he learned that his older brother had died and suddenly he inherited the family fortune. So see you around, nice Mohawk girl, it’s been nice knowing you, but cheerio and all that… My mother’s great-grandfather was a red-haired, blue-eyed white child who had been adopted by a Mohawk family and raised so thoroughly in our culture that he never spoke a word of English. I’m sure there are more settlers scattered throughout my family.

When you think about it, the reason that I am an “Indian within the meaning of the Indian Act, chapter 27, Statues of Canada (1985)” has nothing to do with that proud, fierce lineage of Mohawk Wolf Clan women on my mother’s side but everything to do with the fact that my father’s family stayed firmly on the side of the Indian Act that enabled them to keep registering its members to the Upper Mohawk band at Six Nations.

The reason I mention this, though, is that I have been thinking a lot about blood quantum. I’m not comfortable with the concept. I truly believe that it is the colonizer’s tool to actually destroy us. By determining Indian status through blood quantum the colonizer gets to define what a “status Indian” really is. And for a good portion of the colonial history we got registered that way because of who our father was, totally separating the Haudenosaunee from our reliance on tracing lineage matrilineally. That was obviously designed to weaken the proud Iroquois -- you can thank that bastard Duncan Campbell Scott, architect of the Indian Act and the residential school system for that (one day I’m going to look up his grave just so I can spit on it, but maybe that’s just being too hostile). He knew what making us realign our tribal membership by the father’s side would do to us as a people. I don't think he realized about the power of the aunties and the grandmothers on the fathers’ sides, though, because most of our people held on quite firmly to their beliefs as Iroquoian people quite happily, no thanks to Duncan Campbell Scott (*ptooey*).

But I’m alarmed at how many of our people are hung up on blood quantum and the unnecessary qualification of how much “blood” you have, as if that’s somehow going to make you a better person. O-kay. It has nothing to do with your blood but everything with how you live in your culture and the values that have instructed you, informed you as a functional, onkwehonwe person with all of your duties and responsibilities, and how you live in the world.

And yet in the wider culture there’s an interesting phenomenon at work, where I constantly get people telling me, “I just found out I had a great-great-grandmother/grandfather who was __________(insert tribe here), what should I do to claim my status?” For chrissakes, do I look like your community’s membership clerk? But in all seriousness, I’m glad for you that you take pride in this fact of blood, in this reclaiming of heritage, but I hate to disappoint you – unless your family back on your territory claims you as one of their own, and you work diligently to learn the languages, to learn our ways, to live on a reserve or community, you will never seriously be able to be a true part of indigenous culture. The colonial construct will not allow it. They want you to be a citizen of the colonial corporate franchise, not a proud member of an Indigenous nation. How else are they going to get the tax dollars out of you and your property?

This is why I think we need to re-vision the way we determine membership to our Bands, to our nations. We could base them on the Gayanashagowa, which basically states that “ If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and make known their disposition to the Lords of the Confederacy, they may trace the Roots to the Tree, and if their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Confederate Council, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.”

This picture is me with my mom and dad. Guess we don't look Indian to most people...I